Walking through the doors of Aloha Medical Mission, you may hear the warm greeting, “Aloha, welcome to First Smile.” Keiki (young children) are ushered in to learn more about the importance of healthy teeth. After listening to a presentation from a dental hygienist, children eagerly wait their turn to grab giant tooth costumes and toothbrushes to show off what they’ve learned.
Each child leaves with a goodie bag filled with dental supplies to help them keep their teeth clean and healthy – a skill best taught early, since poor oral hygiene can set children up for a lifetime of health problems. Tooth decay is associated with heart disease and cancer, while untreated cavities can lead to abscesses and other serious complications.
Funded in part by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Hawaii’s foundation, Hawaii Medical Service Association (HMSA) Foundation, the Aloha Medical Mission organizes First Smile. Until recently, Hawaii didn’t have a systematic way to assess children’s’ oral health and lacked public dental health programs that are common in other states.
According to a 2013 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey, more than 70 percent of third graders in Hawaii are affected by tooth decay. This percentage is substantially higher than the national average of 52 percent. And about 7 percent of third graders need urgent dental care because of pain or infection. The rate is about six times higher among low-income children.
Today, First Smile offers a number of community events, including last fall’s “Trick or Teeth,” a Halloween event that helped children and their families prepare for the holiday’s onslaught of candy and sugary treats. Volunteers and staff reinforced the message that candy is OK, but only in moderation. Children danced to the song, “Thriller,” competed in a costume show, munched on healthy treats, and received free dental supplies.
Since 2002, the clinic has cared for tens of thousands of Hawaii residents, providing more than $5.3 million in services at no cost. The organization also offers Welcome Smile, a program for women who are victims of abuse or were previously incarcerated. The program provides teeth cleanings, cavity fillings, and free prosthetics to correct missing or broken teeth. For many women, this bolsters their confidence as they look for jobs and rebuild their lives.