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Great Health Divide | Breaking the cycle of decay

It shows how personal health is connected to the community’s health, leaders say.
It shows how personal health is connected to the community’s health, leaders say.
Published: Jan. 24, 2022 at 1:46 PM EST
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BEVERLY, Ky. (WKYT) - A lot of what happens at Red Bird Mission, Clinic and School boils down to being there for their mountain community: Bell, Clay, Leslie and part of Harlan counties.

“We don’t want the rural edges of these counties to be forgotten,” said Jennifer Wilder, principal of Red Bird Christian School. “Not only that, we want them to flourish.”

For the 150 students, preschool through 12th grade, part of that is a simple dental screening.

“It helps identify children that are in dire need,” said Dr. Bill Collins, dental director for Red Bird Dental Clinic. “Two or three weeks ago we had an 11-year-old come in here who was swelled shut. I don’t mean swelled open, I mean swelled to the point she couldn’t open her mouth.”

Dr. Collins and others at Red Bird not only are working to bridge the great health divide when it comes to oral health; they are also trying to break the cycle of decay that has made that gap so pronounced.

[RELATED COVERAGE | Bridging the Great Health Divide]

“There are access issues. They’re an underserved population historically,” said Brian Hart, chief revenue officer of Delta Dental of Kentucky, a not-for-profit insurance company that financially supports Red Bird’s dental clinic. “So Red Bird is known as a beacon, really, for providing dental care in this area and region.”

And they are getting a firsthand look at what is causing that cycle of decay.

Part of it, they say, is drugs. But they are trying to help, working closely with a substance abuse recovery program through Volunteers of America that allows those in the program to receive the dental care that they need.

“Watching somebody come from the lowest point in their life - physically, mentally, spiritually - and watching them grow and being able to see a smile,” said Stephanie Hoskins, director of rural addiction services for VOA Mid-States. “There’s no words to describe it.”

They have seen how dental care after drug use - which often means dentures, Dr. Collins said - also means giving those in recovery a second chance.

“It’s amazing how for someone who needs that second chance, it restores their confidence instead of speaking to you like this,” said Sen. Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, speaking with his hand covering his mouth, “they’re having a normal conversation because they can be proud of what they look like.”

Another part of breaking the cycle is making sure young students learn healthy habits. Leaders say their health curriculum and teeth screenings show the importance of putting down the pop and building those habits early.

They hope they are educating not just the students, but also the parents - hoping they will take home what they learned at school and using that to be influencers in their own households.

“There’s an old saying: ‘You can take a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.’ And that’s where I feel like we’re at,” Dr. Collins said. “The only other option is to educate.”

Dr. Collins said he has seen improvement since they started doing the screenings in the school. They are now seeing fewer students in need of urgent care and more already getting care. He thinks that is because their efforts to teach are starting to get through to more students and parents.

In the classrooms, teachers hope the next generation carries those habits forward in new ways, addressing not just personal health, but also the community’s health. A new STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) program is designed to teach specific skills that are needed in the region, and also plans to offer a dental assistant program.

“I grew up in this area. I know. The mindset is: ‘I’ve got to graduate, I’ve got to go to school because I’ve got to get out of here and do something with my life,’” said Julia Griffith, the school’s STEAM coordinator. “That doesn’t have to happen. That can happen here. You can thrive here, and we want to show them that.”

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