Sierra Simon
Oak Bluffs School sixth-grader Sierra Simon, fresh from her dental cleaning with no cavities, stands beside her art work. Photos by Susan Safford

Student art is reason to smile

By Pat Waring - March 8, 2007

Artwork covered the walls, artists strolled through the crowd welcoming guests, a long table was set with sweet refreshments, strings of colored lights and a few balloons added a festive air, conversation was upbeat, and there were smiles all around. In fact, the smiles were not only on the faces of the organizers, artists, and guests, they were on the drawings, paintings, and collages too. The smiles were the tip-off; this was not just any art show.

The exhibit of art on Feb. 22 by local students was sponsored by Vineyard Smiles, a new program aiming to bring preventive dental care to all Island children. Organizers planned the show to call attention to National Children's Oral Health Month, which is February, as well as to increase awareness of the important services being offered by Vineyard Smiles. In addition, the "Watch Your Mouth" campaign, a national initiative that stresses the importance of oral health in overall health provided eye-catching materials with a message - like oversized pins that read "Watch Your Mouth." There were jaunty green "I have a Vineyard Smile" stickers, and an array of free toothbrushes in bright colors.

Shyann Simon
Shyann Simon enjoys a cookie and lemonade.

Program coordinator Henrietta McElheny visited Island schools early in February to put out a request for youngsters to create "a Vineyard smile," something about the Island that brings a smile to their faces. She also spread the word at the Boys and Girls Club, and at after-school programs and Head Start. Young artists all the way from pre-school through grade eight rose enthusiastically to the challenge. The result were nearly a hundred 8 1/2- by 11-inch creations ranging from representational to cartoon-like, from sweet to funny, from pretty to zany.

There were smiling girls, smiling puppies, and an Island-shaped collage composed entirely of smiles. There were white shiny teeth and not-so-white uneven teeth, reminding viewers about the value of dental care. There were smiling suns, grinning moons, Islands with big, toothy grins, and smiling red lips with an Island scene inside. One student created a smile fashioned from a lighthouse, and Claire Pettit drew a picture of her new Yorkie puppy, which makes her smile. There was a winking girl with the words, "It does not hurt to smile," and even an expert drawing of the Mona Lisa.

Ms. McElheny reported that when she approached the SSA for a space to hold the show the staff was very accommodating. Gina Barboza, SSA manager of reservations and community relations, and new director of marketing Kimberlee McHugh came over from Woods Hole to help host the event.

"We love doing things like this," said Ms. McHugh," with a nice, warm, cozy feeling."

Successful program expands

According to Sarah Kuh, program director for Vineyard Health Care Access, more than 25 local school children from kindergarten through grade eight and pre-schoolers from the Head Start program have been seen by a dentist by the end of last month for basic care. Although the organizers at first expected it would serve no children older than eighth grade, the preventive campaign is moving into the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School this month.

Carina Cataloni
Carina Cataloni proudly points to her drawing.

"By the end of this school year we will have been to all the schools, and done follow-up rechecks at the Oak Bluffs School and Head Start," said Ms. Kuh. "The program is working well enough we're able to expand it (into the high school) in the first year, which is great."

A dentist and an assistant arrive at a school with mobile equipment. Once set up, the portable facilities enable them to conduct a basic checkup, including exam, cleaning, fluoride treatments, and application of sealants to discourage cavities. They can also do minor restorations and soon will have the capacity to do x-rays if deemed necessary. The dentists that currently come to the Island are Dr. Qui Nguyen and Dr. Ghassan Khoury. They both work for Commonwealth Mobile Oral Health Services, based in Lakeville. Dr. Khoury also has a private practice in Boston and teaches at Boston University. Approximately 300 students will have received at least one checkup by the end of this school year.

"It is open to everyone," said Ms. McElheny. Letters and permission slips are sent home to parents.

Currently the services are offered free of charge, thanks to a grant from the Oral Health Foundation. Funding began in September 2006 for a three-year program. Ms. Kuh said the goal is to make the program self-supporting, by charging fees on a sliding scale. Prices, however, will be kept very affordable, she promised.

Aside from the cost of dental care it was found that many families do not get the necessary preventive treatments for their children because it can be difficult to find a dentist on the Island, Ms. Kuh said. The cost and inconvenience of traveling off-Island for a dental checkup can be daunting, especially for working families with several children.

Also on hand was Debbie Simon, a dental assistant who said she also does "tooth tutoring," meeting with younger classes to advise the children about brushing, flossing, fluoride treatments, and eating healthy snacks.

Ms. McElheny pledged the student art show would become an annual event and she said that next year's exhibit will probably offer awards.

"I think this is awesome," said Superintendent of Vineyard Schools James Weiss, himself wearing a big grin. "Vineyard Smiles has been great for the schools and great for our children, especially because some wonderful people have worked very hard to bring it to us."

Unfortunately the exhibition had to be taken down when the reception ended and much of it is now on show at various locations, including Martha's Vineyard Hospital, the Rural Health Clinic, and the Head Start office. Ms. McElheny hopes next year to display prize-winning work on the SSA vessels and will include high school students in the show.

Some of the cheerful creations are still on display at the SSA terminal, sure to bring smiles to the faces of busy travelers.

For more information about Vineyard Smiles children's preventive oral health care program, call 508-693-6488, ext. 4.