A little over 10 years ago, Stacey Anderson, a registered dental hygienist, had an idea to begin bringing oral health services into area schools and help make sure all kids in Lake County and northeastern Minnesota had access to at least basic dental services. That idea became Just Kids Dental, which is celebrating its 10th year of serving area children who need access to dental care.
A change in Minnesota law, following a national trend, allowed hygienists to offer services outside the traditional dental office. Anderson was familiar with other mobile, school-based dental services that had launched in other places in the U.S. Using her background in community health, Anderson began researching how to bring these services to children here.
"Initially, it began as a personal mission of mine to make a very small difference to a few local schools," she said. "It was making a small impact in educating children, providing fluoride and sealants, and, most importantly, acting as a middle person to connect that child to a local dental home."
When she first started, Anderson said she didn't realize the scope of the "access to care crisis" in the region and was overwhelmed by all the children that were not able to get access to proper dental care.
That first school year JKD served 158 kids. This year, the organization will serve more than 12,000 children from Silver Bay to Moose Lake and has even extended its service to include all of Douglas County, Wis. She said she never dreamed of the access needs, and the problem of accessing quality dental care has only grown in the decade since JKD was founded. In fact, there isn't a single dentist between Silver Bay and downtown Duluth that accepts Medicaid insurance.
Fifty-one million hours of school time is lost each year because of oral disease and pain, according to the national Center for Disease Control and Prevention, making it the largest single reason students miss school.
"The statistics are overwhelming," Anderson said.
Since it's inception, JKD has grown from just Anderson to include 12 full-time employees, 10 of whom are regularly in schools performing oral health services and preventive care. Anderson said the CDC estimates that for every dollar spent in preventive care and education about oral health represents $38 in future spending.
"The key is to educate and address the difficult challenge of providing early education and preventive services as well as educating the negative effects of poor nutrition," she said.
According to Anderson, there has been a change in approach to oral health over the last 10 years with the recognition that oral health affects overall health.
In addition to its school-based program, JKD also has developed two other programs. One is based in the Essentia Health pediatric services building in Duluth, providing education and services to children as young as 1 year old and another community-based outreach program that provides services to children outside the schools such as community lunch programs or at Boys & Girls Clubs.
Each child that receives services also receives an oral health kit that includes a toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste, flossing tools and a pencil. Anderson said each child gets a prize after a cleaning.
One time, however, she said there was a boy reluctant to take a prize and when she asked him why she was stunned with his answer.
"He asked me if he could take toothbrushes for his brothers instead of a prize," Anderson said.
Anderson said they gave him toothbrushes for his brothers and that JKD has handed out more than 3,000 toothbrushes in Lake County this year.
"Education serves no purpose without toothbrushes," Anderson said.
In the future, Anderson said JKD's focus is to continue providing the services to schools and other community organizations as well as searching out new and underserved pockets of the population.