Most 3rd graders today do not have the same every day worries as their parents did. Most children do not worry where their next meal is coming from, or about not getting medical attention because their parents do not have the funds to pay for it. The last thing on most 3rd graders minds is seeing the dentist on a regular basis. The children that Esperança has serviced in Phoenix the past 19 years are NOT most 3rd graders. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, 28% of Arizona 3rd graders have Untreated Tooth Decay.
Esperança’s Domestic Program Director, Maria, grew up in the same situation as the children she now serves. “When I was a little girl, I had my first visit to the dentist in 4th grade. I used to walk myself to the dentist’s clinic, all my mother had to do was sign a paper. I remember feeling so happy and proud to have a dentist! I found out later that he was a volunteer, dedicating his time to serve uninsured and uninsurable Phoenix residents.”
It wasn’t until Maria came to work at Esperança that she understood the value of his work as a volunteer dentist and his dedication to children like herself. This is when she learned that she needed to provide oral health education and resources to all of the 3rd graders and their schoolmates. Maria found out that by the time they were in 3rd grade, the majority of children have already had extractions, sleepless night due to toothaches, and missed school days from pain. These are not the conditions any parent wants for their child.
In 2000, seeing the tremendous need in Arizona, Esperança started to go into Title I schools and teach children the proper way to brush their teeth, how often they should change toothbrushes, and why it is so important to go to the dentist. After each presentation, Maria would give them a “smile bag”; consisting of a toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss. Children in Arizona who attend these schools with a high free and reduced lunch participation have a higher prevalence of tooth decay. The prevalence rate is nearly 1.5 times higher among lower socio-economic status children. These are the children that Esperança serves.
After teaching one 2nd grade class, one boy in particular was so excited to have gotten his Smile Bag. His name was Sabastian, and he showed Maria the reality of the poverty our Phoenix communities still face. Sabastian looked at Maria with shock and said, “I have my own toothbrush? I don’t have to share with my brother!?” At that moment, it became Maria’s mission to make sure every child like Sabastian would never have to share a toothbrush again.
Esperança has educated over 43,000 students just like Sabastian since the beginning of the oral health program in 2000 and continues to change lives in schools throughout Maricopa County.