Armed with toothy puppets and floss, Cal State Bakersfield pre-dental students taught young children at Horace Mann Elementary School how to protect their pearly whites Friday, on the eve of the spookiest and most sugary holiday of the year.
The kids were eager to try their hand at brushing and flossing the puppets' choppers after the older students quizzed them about what foods are good for their own teeth. The children squealed and flashed smiles, some punctuated by missing teeth and silver caps, as jets of water sprayed from the puppets' mouths.
"We take it for granted that everyone has a toothbrush but like I say, there are many kids that are sharing a toothbrush, many kids that don't realize the importance of brushing your teeth and taking care of your teeth," said Dayna Gardner, Horace Mann's principal.
Tooth decay affects more than a quarter of U.S. children between the ages of 2 and 5 and more than half of adolescents age 12 to 15, according to the Centers for Disease Control. A 2005 California survey found that nearly 54 percent of kindergarteners and 71 percent of third-graders had a history of tooth decay.
"This is an epidemic illness. It's so easy to prevent and I think the only way we can like fight against it is prevention instead of reconstructive treatment," said Julissa Guerra Percolla, a CSUB senior studying business administration, before demonstrating proper brushing on a grinning cow puppet for a group of second-graders.
CSUB biology grad student Sasan Jahanian developed the "Creating Healthy Smile" program with fellow members of the university's Pre-Dental Club hoping to fill in the knowledge gap and began visiting schools early this year.
On his quest to bettering smiles, Jahanian was transformed, too.
"This program with all it entails, and it does entail a lot, I love it. I love everything about it. I think it's 100 percent worth it," said Jahanian, who is also president of CSUB's Pre-Dental Club.
Jahanian never had an interest in doing community service before starting the program. He insists the college students work with the kids in small groups so the children will retain the information better.
Dr. Robert Reed, a general dentist and member of the California Dental Association Board of Trustees, said early dental health is important for preventing future decay. Losing a primary tooth too soon and not taking care of them can create problems for adult teeth, he also noted.
Though he was not familiar with program, Reed congratulated the CSUB students for their work.
"I think programs like (Creating Healthy Smiles) are absolutely outstanding," Reed said.
On Friday, several school staff said they also appreciated the program. Children in schools' free and reduced-price lunch programs had even higher rates of tooth decay, according to the California survey, and more than 90 percent of Horace Mann's students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
In the past, kids would miss school because of tooth pain, kindergarten teacher Christa Hollon said.
"I think teaching them at a young age about brushing their teeth is a super awesome program. I would definitely make time every year for something like this," she said.
Since it's inception, the program collected donations and picked up grants to help pay for supplies. Post baccalaureate student Rosemary Tran said the college students have also shelled out money from their own pockets when they didn't have enough supplies.
The students are striving to make the program sustainable by training others to carry it on after they are gone and securing more funding. They're also scrambling to schedules visits at elementary schools, which has sometimes proved challenging because of the project's newness, they said.
The group's volunteer base has swelled from a few members to more than 30, Jahanian said.
Jahanian is set on reaching 6,000 children this academic year, meaning connecting with roughly 20 schools. He hopes the students take the program to where they go to dental school, spreading the project throughout California and the nation in the next five to 10 years.