Dr. Adele Della Torre sang the alphabet song as she cleaned preschoolers’ teeth.
“You can sing the alphabet song twice! That’ll be two minutes of brushing your teeth,” she told a 4-year-old preschool student cheerfully on July 17 at the Center of Excellence Preschool and Learning Center in South Minneapolis.
Della Torre is the founder of Ready Set Smile (RSS), a nonprofit that has provided Minneapolis kids from low-income families with preventive dental care and education for nearly six years.
“Children are so much more likely to miss school, to miss their education because of pain from their teeth,” she said. “If they’re in pain, they can’t focus.”
Since 2013, RSS has provided services to more than 1,500 students at 23 different Minneapolis schools, including Jefferson Community School and Stonebridge World School. According to RSS, 85% of children served by the program are eligible for free and reduced lunch.
“Most of these kids don’t have access to dental care,” executive director Jody McCardle said.
Della Torre has been working as a general dentist in the East Isles neighborhood since 1989, when she opened her practice, ADT Dental, near 22nd & Hennepin.
Starting in 2002, Della Torre and her staff would give students from Jefferson Community School free dental care a couple days a year in coordination with the American Dental Association’s Give Kids a Smile program.
But after the recession hit in 2008, Della Torre noticed a desperate need for more resources and services among the students.
“The needs of the kids we were seeing was just devastating, it was really shocking,” Della Torre said. “At the end of the day, we weren’t high-fiving each other anymore. We were just wondering, ‘Oh my gosh, what is happening with these kids?’”
Della Torre formed a board of community leaders and dental professionals to address this problem and created Ready Set Smile with the goal of providing year-round dental services and education to students who were going without.
“There’s a great need for this, and school administrators know that there’s a disparity,” said Della Torre. “Families are distracted by the toxic stress of poverty.”
Since its founding, Ready Set Smile has grown to six volunteer dentists and a number of other practitioners. During its 2017–2018 fiscal year, RSS received more than $360,000 in funding for the program through grants, individual and corporate donations and other sources.
According to the Minnesota Dental Association, Minnesota has one of the worst oral health outcomes in the country and its Medicaid reimbursement rate for children needing dental care is ranked 49th out of the 50 states in the nation. “We’re trying to change that by reducing the barriers to preventive dental care by going to where the kids are,” McCardle said. “We want to help overall awareness.”
At appointments, the staff provides children with an oral health evaluation, cleanings, sealants and fluoride treatments.
Education is also an important part of the program. RSS makes a point of visiting classrooms to teach the importance of good oral hygiene, the science behind dental disease and the impact of diet on oral and general health. “We believe you have to go into the classroom where students are ready to learn,” said Della Torre. Parents are taught how to encourage good dental care to their children to avoid decay.
RSS provides routine preventive dental services, but sometimes they refer children with early or urgent dental needs at a partner clinic and help families apply for insurance coverage.
For the kids who RSS serves, McCardle said, going to the dentist is a prospect that brings mixed reactions.
“When they come here, some are excited but others are apprehensive,” she said.