Smiles in South Dakota: Perspective from Miss Native American USA

t has been a goal of mine to share my knowledge as a dental hygienist and reach out to as many Native American children as possible. For months, I worked hard to make my smile drive project successful by collaborating with America’s ToothfairyMiss Native American USA Organization, and Cherokee Elementary School Sacred Path. I was determined to personally visit the children of the Pine Ridge Reservation and I am grateful for those who helped make it possible. I am well aware of access to care issues and high dental caries rates throughout Indian Country.

Everyone warned me about how cold it would be and that I needed to be sure to dress warm. Thankfully, we were blessed with sunshine and pretty good weather during our visit. The land was absolutely beautiful and was spread out for miles and miles. Every morning, we would drive about an hour or more to reach the first school.

Talk about making a girl feel important! When I arrived to some of the schools, I would hear “She’s here!” One of the daycares even had a flyer with my picture on it hanging on the front window to announce my visit.

Visiting with students at Loneman School during my oral health presentation.Visiting with students at Loneman School during my oral health presentation.

I met the sweetest little boy at Loneman Head start. He had so many questions and was wondering why I was at his school. After he finished his breakfast, he went to brush his teeth and his toothbrush was missing. He looked at me with the most concerned look and said, “I can’t brush my teeth if I don’t have a toothbrush.” His teacher provided him with a toothbrush and I provided him with an additional toothbrush to take home, so we made sure that he has the tools necessary to brush his teeth and keep them healthy.

I will admit that I can sometimes be a shy person, but while I was there, being shy was not an option. I had to overcome my fears of speaking to very large groups of children, as some of the groups filled the school gymnasium. Unfortunately, one of the school’s microphone was broken, so you can imagine little me trying to project my voice so that a gymnasium full of students could hear me.

My presentation consisted of oral health education, a fun brushing song, Q & A session, and distribution of oral health products to each student. The children were very interactive, with lots of questions and comments. Some of the children sang Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and taught me some dental terms in their Lakota language. We were sure to make time for selfies and autographs, as the older kids surrounded me after my presentation at Pine Ridge Elementary School.

I enjoyed having lunch with some of the students at Batesland Elementary School, which allowed us to mingle and get to know a little bit more about them. Every child that I had the opportunity to meet was so precious and special, with so much potential.

I had the opportunity to tour the IHS dental clinic and meet the wonderful staff. I was surprised to learn that they only have one dental hygienist, considering that their tribe is much larger than ours. Nicole Glines was absolutely wonderful and it was obvious that she genuinely cares about the Lakota people and their health, but as a dental hygienist, I completely understand the issues that she is facing. She is reaching out and doing everything she can, but one person/dental hygienist can only do so much.

The hugs, like this one at Wolf Creek School, are some of my favorite memories from my trip to South DakotaThe hugs, like this one at Wolf Creek School, are some of my favorite memories from my trip to South Dakota

While visiting Loneman Day School, Delta Dental of South Dakota was providing services and I heard that they would love to meet me. It was such a blessing to meet them and learn more about all that they do for the children of South Dakota. We talked about everything during our visit. We shared stories, smiles, and even tears as we discussed the dental issues that they are facing and how they are going above and beyond to try to make sure that the kids are taken care of. I learned that many of the children are referred out to Rapid City for dental treatment, making it more of a challenge to have their treatment completed. Unfortunately, the IHS clinic in Pine Ridge does not have a pediatric dentist. I truly believe, that in cases like this, dental therapists could really help make a difference and improve access to care issues. You can look for me to be promoting dental therapists at upcoming events in the near future.

I really enjoyed my trip to South Dakota.  There are lots of wonderful people doing great things to help kids, and I learned much from them all.  Thank you for welcoming me and making my visit special.  I look forward to seeing South Dakota again!

* Note: Ms. Hyatt was invited to share her South Dakota experiences on the DDSD blog after DDSD Mobile Program staff had the pleasure of meeting her when she visited the Loneman School in Oglala. Opinions expressed by guest bloggers are their own and do not represent views of Delta Dental of South Dakota