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Community member recognized as public health champion for work promoting youth dental care

April 07, 2017

When volunteers with the Miles of Smiles program began visiting Roseville schools, they were surprised by the number of students suffering from tooth decay.

“I pulled out those papers one time, and about 80 percent of the kids had urgent dental needs,” said Ruth Burgess, one of the program’s founders.

Cavities and other symptoms of poor oral health can be painful for children and lead to other problems such as ear and sinus infections, speaking difficulties and trouble with concentration.

Miles of Smiles, a program launched in 2000 by the Rotary Club of Roseville, targets low-income elementary schools and provides on-site dental education, screenings by a dental hygienist, sealants and referrals. Burgess was honored this week as Placer County’s inaugural Public Health Champion.

“As part of National Public Health Week, we wanted to start an annual award that would highlight one member of the community who has made a particularly notable contribution to the health of Placer County,” said the county’s health officer, Dr. Robert Oldham. “She has been an effective advocate for public health for many, many years in this community.”

Burgess began working at what is now the Sutter Roseville Medical Center Foundation in the mid-80s, fundraising and securing grants and eventually retiring as executive director. She also served as a board member of the Placer Community Foundation, and joined Rotary in 1987 as the Roseville club’s first female member.

When the club began exploring options for a signature program in the late ‘90s, Burgess combed through a needs assessment — not unlike the county’s recently-released Community Health Status Assessment — and realized that access to dental care was a serious problem in Placer County. They began working with Placer County public health staff on a grant proposal, got the equipment and Miles of Smiles was born.

Since its inception, the program has expanded from two schools to five. More than 6,200 local children have received screenings and more than 3,200 second- and fifth-graders have gotten sealants on their molars to prevent cavities thanks to Miles of Smiles. The organizers also network with local dentists and connect students with urgent needs to providers, regardless of the family’s ability to pay.

“We feel a really strong relationship with the kids. We walk them over to the portable clinic; we talk to them. It’s a way of getting to know the kids and reassuring them,” Burgess said. “The fun part is that most of the time in fifth grade, they remember us from second grade. You feel like you’re really making a difference.”

And it’s not just a feeling: Just three percent of the second- and fifth-graders screened by Miles of Smiles this year had urgent dental needs, in stark contrast to when the program first began and 80 percent of students fell into that category. But there is still work to be done: Nineteen percent of kindergarten children screened this year had urgent needs, which has now become the focus of a new countywide collaboration.

Today, while the Miles of Smiles program is no longer directly affiliated with the county, Burgess represents the program as part of the new Placer County Children’s Oral Health Alliance. This group of community partners includes county staff as well as health providers and nonprofit leaders from Chapa-De Dental Services, Rockville Smiles, Placer County Office of Education, the Latino Leadership Council, KidsFirst and Head Start.

“For a lot of years, Placer County has been very collaborative across public and private lines,” Burgess said. “I’m a strong believer in civic engagement. We need to stay involved and be a part of what’s going on. The nonprofit world can’t take care of everything. Government can’t take care of everything. If we partner and put our resources together, everybody wins. It’s a stronger and better community.”

She added: “We’re going to tackle these problems together.”

Learn more about the Rotary Club of Roseville and their work with Miles of Smiles on their website.

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