By Vanessa Salvia

Neither Sylvia Barry nor Michael Coughlin anticipated how gripped they would become by the issue of childhood dental disease in Lane County. After realizing what a huge problem it actually is, the pair, along with other individuals and businesses, teamed up to deliver 30,000 dental care kits, one to every child in Lane County—a one-two punch to childhood dental disease, right in the mouth, so to speak.

Barry is vice president of resource development for United Way of Lane County. Coughlin is CEO of Burley, designers of recreational transport gear, based in Eugene.

Before the kits were distributed in early February, Burley’s warehouse was filled with crate after crate of small zippered cases, each filled with a full-sized tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush, floss, a timer, and brushing instructions in both English and Spanish. The flipside of the instructional page includes low-cost dental clinics and 211 information, which links people to social services in the area.

“We have 600 man-hours into assembling this,” says Coughlin. “And it’s a full-sized tube of toothpaste!” Last year, Burley helped deliver 5,000 dental kits—2,600 to schoolchildren in Bethel’s school district and the remainder to local agencies. Once people learned about this effort, the company continued to get requests for more kits.

“This year, every child from the ages of 3 to 10, basically through sixth grade, will get a kit, from the Cascades to the coast,” Barry says. If kids are not in school, agencies that serve children will reach them.

Burley, Fresh Dental (Dr. Jeff Jentzsch), and Kaiser Permanente sponsored the kits. Seventeen local companies and many more individuals supported the project by volunteering to assemble them.

“Dental health care in Oregon is a serious concern,” says Coughlin. “And children in poverty have twice the rate of dental disease.”

The problem is far-reaching. According to an expert dentist in Forest Hills Queens, children miss school due to infections and pain from tooth decay. They experience reduced productivity and poor self-image, all of which limits their educational success.

“You can’t send a kid to school with aching teeth and expect them to learn anything,” says Coughlin.

Barry and Coughlin both tell heart-wrenching stories. One involves a 3-year-old who had to get all of his baby teeth extracted due to tooth decay. Last year, when Coughlin gave out one of the kits, the child exclaimed with obvious joy that he wouldn’t have to share a toothbrush with his siblings anymore.

This project stems from the United Way–led 2015 Community Health Improvement Plan, which assessed the overall health of our community. Oral health was repeatedly mentioned as an issue. At the same time, Coughlin was part of state-level action to address dental health through the Oregon Community Foundation. Once he and Barry heard the unfortunate stories and learned the statistics, they knew they needed to act to take a bite out of the problem. And Coughlin really wanted to do something local.

“February is Children’s Oral Health Month, but there wasn’t much going on in our community around this,” says Coughlin. He was searching for an activity that would highlight the issue and jumpstart more volunteerism at Burley—which the company provides paid time off for—and when he suggested the dental kits last year, interest among his employees grew, just as demand for the kits soared. “This is a very tangible solution to a very real problem—and a very local solution,” says Barry.