This article was produced and provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
When I was a young girl growing up in a small Yup’ik Eskimo village in southwest Alaska, children en- joyed a strong sense of community thanks to special promises made on our behalf by every parent to every other parent in the community:
As your children walk outside your door, I promise to look after them,
to make sure they are safe,
they have what they need.
I promise to carry them in my heart.
I trust that you too will look after mine.
In this way, our children will know they are loved.
They will know they are important. They will know their place in our world. They will know they too are responsible for younger children.
They will know we are all connected.
What affects one child affects every child. What affects one family affects every family. What affects one community affects every community.
In Alaska, we have been working to restore the smiles of Alaska Native children by improving access to oral health care in new ways.
For me this work is deeply personal. As a child I remember when the dentist came to our village once a year. As we waited in line to be seen, we could hear the screams behind the door as teeth were pulled from children ahead of us. The door would open and we’d see our crying brother, sister, cousin or friend holding a bloody gauze bandage to their mouth. We always asked how many teeth were pulled.
For the youngest kids, this was especially traumatic because they had not experienced it before.
When we began to develop our Dental Health Aide Therapist (DHAT) program, we were told there was too much opposition. We were told that we were out-resourced and we were politically out numbered. We were told it was simply going to be too hard.
While we knew that was probably all true, we also knew that some of our chil- dren were graduating from high school with full sets of dentures. Many other children covered their mouths when they smiled and laughed because they had “ugly teeth” or missing teeth. These things happen when you only have access to oral health care once every year or two, if you are lucky.
Today, 24 certified DHATs practice in rural Alaska. Our children receive oral health care from people who look like them, who speak our languages and understand our cultural norms. Our children look up to our DHATs. They are people that we know and trust.
Because of these close relationships, we are already changing the smiles of Alaska Native children. We are beginning to see cavity-free kids. We are raising the oral health IQ of our children, our families and our communities. What began as our lo- cal solution to our local problem is being looked at by other states as people realize that this model can work anywhere.
We have learned a number of valuable lessons. The most important may be this: that people will do the most amazing things when given the right reasons. And children are always the right reasons.
The result of our efforts will be to ensure that our children grow up healthy and strong and equipped to make their own promise to the children of the future. Just as I made that promise to my daughters.
Valerie Davidson is the senior director of intergovernmental and legal affairs for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. She helped lead the fight to bring dental therapists to remote Alaska areas. This essay was excerpted from the 2012 Annual Report of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Visit WWKF.org to read the full text.