Providence, R.I., had by 1996 experienced a major demographic shift. Minorities had become the majority and the school system reflected that change.
As a consultant with the Rhode Island Department of Health, I had the opportunity to take part in a pilot sealant project in three Providence elementary schools in the spring of 1996. St. Joseph Health Services of RI (SJHS) was the vendor for the project. SJHS maintained a Health Center in South Providence that had a range of services, including a small dental clinic.
The level of untreated disease was staggering, with rampant decay and periodontal disease. Clearly, these children needed more than sealants for third graders. With the belief that these types of program fit their mission, SJHS decided to hire me and a hygienist, Susan Perlini, to continue the program after the pilot funds were exhausted.
That fall, local funders headed by Karen Voci, a senior program manager from the Rhode Island Foundation (RIF), came to SJHS with a request for proposal from RWJF's Local initiative Funding Partnerships (LIFP). RIF and the HELP Coalition were willing to be local partners to expand the school-based dental program. Karen organized a work group and a proposal was written and accepted. LIFP provided more than funds as it worked extensively with us to insure the success and survival of the program.
With three years of funding, we expanded the program to 10 schools. We bought more equipment and hired more staff. The most critical hire was Christine Vallee to be the administrative co-director. Chris hit the ground running, and we worked hard to make the program a success clinically and in the eyes of the community. We decided to call ourselves Providence Smiles.
Over the years we expanded into more Providence schools and into neighboring Pawtucket. We started working with Head Start programs to identify children at risk at an earlier age and provide and initial dental experience in a friendly environment. We helped other groups develop programs for their communities.
As we grew, it became clear that we needed a dental clinic that could offer comprehensive care for children in a friendly setting. With the support of SJHS, the dental clinic became the Pediatric Dental Center. Growing over the years, SJHS partnered with Lutheran Medical Center to create a two-year pediatric dental residency program. Today the main location has 14 operatories, and two satellite locations have a total of six more.
Providence Smiles is now the official school dentist for Providence and Central Falls, another core city. The level of need has changed dramatically for the better, fewer children with untreated decay, more children with a "dental home."
This has been an amazing journey, starting with that three-year LIFP grant. Like a pebble dropped into a pond, the effects of that grant radiated outward, dramatically improving the oral health of children in Rhode Island. Polly Seitz and her team at LIFP were absolutely terrific in helping us create a program that has survived for 16 years. Providence Smiles is a great story!