Smile, it's the Tooth Fairy

Soldotna dental hygienist plans visits to classes

Posted: Wednesday, January 15, 2003

The Tooth Fairy is coming.

Or is it Ms. Toothpaste? Or The Molenator?

Regardless of the incarnation, the proximity of February means dental health month is around the corner. And Soldotna dental hygienist Carmen Stephl has created just the persona to encourage young school-aged children to develop good dental cleaning habits.

"It's just part of my job as a registered dental hygienist," Stephl said. "Seventy percent of being a hygienist is education. If people are not able to get into the dental office, you go out to the people."

She said the schools are a good place for children to learn about dental health, especially if they don't have access to that information at home or on dental visits.

"They should be getting that education from their parents, and some of them aren't," she said. "There are other issues that sometimes take over where dental health is not that important.

"Dental education is just like our bodies. What better place to do that than in a school."

Around the beginning of February, Stephl said she starts to visit area elementary schools to give a 30-minute program promoting good dental hygiene to kindergartners, first- and third-graders.

The education program is sponsored partially through grants given directly to the schools by toothpaste manufacturers Crest and Colgate. Stephl said the companies provide toothpaste, toothbrushes and floss to schools for the three grades previously mentioned and she said school nurses have to apply for these programs a whole year in advance to receive the materials each fall.

When there is a shortfall of dental supplies, the Kenai Peninsula Dental Hygienists Association, of which Stephl is president, fills in the gaps. She said the association also got a $10,000 grant in 2000 from the Healthy Smiles Committee of the state Division of Public Health to provide dental educational material specifically targeted to children up to 5 years old and their parents.

The program features a National Dental Association Movie and talk about the proper way to brush and floss teeth and about general daily dental maintenance. And then there is Stephl's character, whose name, she said, may be due for an update.

"I started out as the Tooth Fairy, then I changed it to Ms. Toothpaste," she said. "But in the movie 'The Santa Clause II,' the Tooth Fairy said she wanted to change her name to the Molenator."

Stephl said she used to go as herself, a dental hygienist, but discovered with the younger audience, an adult didn't have as much staying power. So she took on the guise of the Tooth Fairy, then revamped her costume to look like a giant, walking tube of toothpaste.

"When you dress up, that's what's made the biggest impact," Stephl said. "It made it more fun for the kids and more fun for me. It seems to work, and I have a good time with it."

Stan Steadman, the executive director of Central Peninsula Health Centers Inc. said Healthy Communities-Healthy People initiated the program for in-school dental education two years ago, and began working with the state to find ways to fund it.

"It's a high priority with us," he said. "Our goal is to be able to staff enough to be involved in prevention."

But Stephl said staffing is the problem. She said she has been visiting the schools mostly by herself and could use assistance, especially with more demand for the program.

"I would usually go just around the month of February, but because it is just me, I have to spread it out over a six-month period. If anything, I definitely could use some help."

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