Amber Fowler remembers the teenage girl who wouldn’t smile and would hide her mouth behind her hands when she spoke.
“Being a teen is hard, and if you’re not confident it’s even worse,” says Amber, executive director of the Dental Foundation of Oregon. “When she got her teeth fixed, she started smiling again.”
The girl got her smile back thanks to the Tooth Taxi—a mobile clinic that delivers free dental care to Oregon’s neediest children. The Dental Foundation’s “rock star bus” is a 38-foot tricked-out motor home with a full-time dentist and two assistants who provide dental care and oral health education to low-income and uninsured children.
Created through a partnership with the Oregon Education Association Choice Trust, Moda Health and the Dental Foundation of Oregon, the Tooth Taxi is funded by foundations, corporations and individual donations.
The Centers for Disease Control found that in 2015-2016, about 43 percent of children ages 2 to 19 had cavities—down from 50 percent four years earlier. For children living below the federal poverty line, rates showed no decrease. While 52 percent of poor kids had cavities in 2015-2016, 34 percent of children from higher-income families had cavities.
Tooth Taxi Program Manager Carrie Peterson says she sees these facts reflected in children nearly every day. She worked as a dental assistant for 16 years and volunteered with the Tooth Taxi before becoming its program manager.
In 10 years, the Tooth Taxi has treated more than 20,000 children and traveled 76,000 miles across Oregon’s 100,000 square miles. Since it took to the road in 2008, the Tooth Taxi has visited more than 400 schools and community sites and donated $7.2 million in dental services.
“We’ve been to every county in the state,” Amber says.
The taxi spends a week at each school, providing dental cleanings, sealants, X-rays, fillings, extractions and minor oral surgery to dozens of children, many of whom have never been to the dentist.
“We go to their school—a place that’s familiar and comfortable,” says Carrie. “The bus is colorful, and we have prizes and stickers and TVs on the ceilings.”
The taxi team is often accompanied by dentistry students from Oregon Health and Science University, volunteer dentists, hygienists, dental assistants and volunteers from schools the taxi serves.
In classrooms, the team leads lessons on the importance of oral health. According
to Mayo Clinic researchers, oral health can be an indicator of whole-body health. The mouth is full of bacteria, but the body’s natural defenses—combined with daily brushing and flossing—keep the bacteria in balance. Without proper oral hygiene, bacteria can reach levels that lead to tooth decay and gum disease, which can contribute to cardiovascular disease and other ailments.
Each school is given a stack of colorful children’s books on oral health, which teachers can use to reinforce what the youngsters have learned. Each child also receives a toothbrush, toothpaste and floss.
For the Tooth Taxi team, this practical approach is the key to changing routines and improving lives.
Children from low-income families in rural areas are especially vulnerable because they often can’t afford treatment and have limited access to care.
“There are not as many providers, and for those on assistance, they often have to go to the next town for a provider that will accept their health plan,” Carrie says. “Many people don’t have the transportation to get to the next town.”
Even everyday habits such as brushing can be hampered without the money to buy toothpaste.
“It’s so important to visit the rural areas,” Amber says, noting that 20 percent of Oregon’s population lives in rural or hard-to-reach communities.
Carrie remembers one case where a 10-year-old boy couldn’t eat because chewing hurt too much.
“He told us he couldn’t eat salad,” she says, “and I thought that might be the best meal he would eat all day.”
The team repaired the boy’s teeth and restored his ability to eat.
“For us, it’s a simple thing,” Carrie says. “For him, it changed his life.”
To have the Tooth Taxi visit your school, administrators must submit a request. Applications are evaluated based on economic need, adequate parking and the availability of a school volunteer to escort students. Visit www.smileonoregon.org to submit a request.
About the Series: This Ruralite-produced initiative spotlights health challenges in rural communities, efforts to address them and the unsung heroes behind the work. The series receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, which funds projects and programs in Alaska and the Northwest. We welcome story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.