From afar, Camp Harbor View looks like the typical camp experience. Here, kids can be seen swimming, sailing, rock wall climbing, fishing and honing their acting and painting skills. But to the 900 campers, ages 11-14, from Boston’s most underserved communities, it is so much more: a safe place to talk to a social worker or counselor, a chance to forge long-lasting friendships, or even see the dentist. The leadership of Camp Harbor View has long understood that bundling summer fun with other human services sets kids up for success.
Consider dental health. Children with toothaches miss more school and have a lower grade point average than healthy peers. The obstacles inherently built into the traditional health care delivery system can complicate access to quality dental care for families living in poverty. Whether navigating paperwork and insurance coverage, finding a nearby MassHealth dental provider or taking off work to drive a child to an appointment, low-income families are forced to prioritize basic necessities, and dental care doesn’t always make the list.
Organizations across the state are working to improve access to dental care, bridging the gap between care and need. Through mobile dental clinics and community-based programs, dental schools, professional organizations and public health dental hygienists are expanding access to services by treating children where they spend most of their day, whether that be summer camp, school, or aftercare programs. And for good reason – the impact of this care stems much further than the mouth.
Health professionals are increasingly inclined to view the mouth as a mirror of overall health. Oral health status can serve as a helpful vantage point for detecting early signs of chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and HIV/AID, or recognizing abuse and neglect, among other issues. Poor oral health can affect self-esteem, nutrition, communications skills and social development. Left untreated, dental diseases can lead to severe pain and infection, causing children to miss out on all things that let kids, be kids.
Throughout the summer, in between swim lessons and arts and crafts projects, children at Camp Harbor View receive on-site preventive dental care among a suite of services built into their day, in a familiar and comfortable environment. The continuation of this dental care, from camp into the classroom, is a model for providing wrap-around services where kids are. By transforming camps, school dining halls, community centers, gymnasiums and auditoriums into access points for preventive health care, we can help kids be kids all year long.
Director, ForsythKids, The Forsyth Institute