It’s hard to focus on learning when your head is pounding with a toothache. Speaking up in class can be tough when you are self-conscious about your smile. Thanks to a collaborative effort from Partners for Rural Impact, Grace Community Health, and the support of a longtime regional funder that wishes to remain anonymous, hundreds of Leslie County students now have easier access to dental care that will help reduce these distractions.

Access to dental care in rural areas is a challenge. Some communities may have only one dentist’s office, and getting there is another obstacle. After COVID closures, the need was even more critical. Robert Roark, Full-Service Community Schools project director at PRI, wanted to help fill that need.

“As principal, I knew there was a problem with access to dental care, but I didn’t realize how serious it was,” said Roark, who served as principal of Leslie County High School before joining PRI.

But after hearing the story of an eighth-grade student in so much pain that they pulled their own teeth, Roark worked with Amon Couch, executive director of PRI Appalachia, and Jennie Pollard, director of PRI’s Full-Service Community Schools grants, to find a solution using available resources.

Roark reached out to the funding organization and Grace Community Health to discuss expanding their existing programs for children in kindergarten through sixth grade to include middle and high school students with support from the FSCS grant and school staff. Through this successful partnership, all Leslie County students from kindergarten through high school will now receive dental screenings and care on site.

Following Grace Community Health screenings of 610 students, 97 students were at Level 1 emergency need, with abscesses, broken teeth and bleeding. Another 236 students were at Level 2 need, showing multiple cavities. Measuring the problem was only the first step. Students requiring follow-up treatment will be treated at Grace Community Health clinics, which have set aside three days a week for treating Leslie County students. A new partnership with a pediatric dentist in Hazard, and the addition of another dentist at the Grace clinic in Hyden, is helping to meet the need. Three of the participating dentists, including two at Grace Community Health and one in Hazard, are alumni of Leslie County Schools.

Roark said the biggest impact on students is showing them that someone cares. This goes beyond the physical aspect. Many students with missing or broken teeth also struggle with body image and self-confidence, and these programs are changing that, one healthy smile at a time. The funding partner has also helped students get dental implants, dentures and other cosmetic procedures that aren’t covered by insurance.

“PRI Appalachia is so thankful for the partnership we have with Grace Health, the funding partner and the Leslie County School district to help offer support to students around better dental health,” Couch said. “Believing in a true whole-child approach means that greater outcomes for students comes through not only academic support, but also support in the areas of physical health, mental health, and dental health.”

In addition to treatment, students and families are also given oral health supplies and educational resources, thanks to contributions from Save the Children and faith-based partners in the community.

Roark says these problems are not unique to Leslie County, and FSCS hopes to engage more partners and philanthropic organizations to expand this work to neighboring counties.

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