Helping Others Gain Confidence and Knowledge Through Smiles

Photography by Catie Viox and provided by Hayden Family Dental


The Lighthouse Youth Services Oral Health Program in Cincinnati received the Ohio Dental Association Access to Dental Care Program Award on Friday, September 15 at the Callahan Celebration of Excellence, held in conjunction with the 151st ODA Annual Session.

The Lighthouse Youth Services Oral Health Program aims to help students learn about the importance of oral health as well as provide free care to those in need.

The program got started in 2011, when Dr. Rebecca Hayden, a member of the Cincinnati Dental Society’s Access to Dental Care Committee, developed a partnership with the dental society and Lighthouse Community School. Lighthouse Community School is a charter school specializing in individualized, flexible and intensive strategies to meet the educational needs of youth in the child welfare system.

Hayden said she approached Superintendent Daniel Trujillo with the idea of coming into the school to teach the students about oral health. She said his eyes lit up at the idea, and they worked together to create a program that would be tailored toward the specific needs of the students at Lighthouse Community School. Many of the students who attend the school are in and out of foster care, and most of them have never learned about oral health care.

“For people who live in poverty, access to dental care is usually just about zero,” Trujillo said. “It’s hard to get access to health care, and dental care is sometimes considered separate. It’s seen as something other than within the health care system. So they’ll take care of their physical needs first because they’re prioritizing.”

The idea developed into an oral health fair, which is held once a year at the school. The health fair begins with a talk from Patti Collins, whose 24-year-old nephew Kyle Willis died because a tooth abscess spread to his brain. The story helps illustrate to the students why it’s so important to take care of their oral health, Hayden said.

The students are then broken up into groups to go to stations to learn more in-depth information about various oral health topics. Stations include brushing and flossing, diet and nutrition, children’s oral health and smoking and drugs. When they found that several students had their own children, they created a station about children’s oral health. The program has recently evolved to bring in a physician to discuss overall health awareness and how the health of the mouth affects the whole body.

Hayden said in the sessions they are very straightforward with the students and try to get on their level. For example, in the brushing and flossing station, they talk about how if a student is not staying at their home and doesn’t have a toothbrush available, they can at least rinse their mouth with water or wipe off their teeth with a washcloth. They also discuss how to conserve costs by purchasing lower cost toothpastes or even rinsing off floss in order to reuse it the next day. In the oral health station, Hayden discusses how smoking causes gum disease and the impact of drug use on oral health. Hayden shows the students pictures of meth mouth and patients who lost their teeth to heroin addiction. The kids come across these choices every day and Hayden emphasizes understanding the consequence of oral destruction from some of these habits. She goes on to discourage buying “grills” on the street or sharing them with their friends to prevent passing bacteria.

“The whole program is really catered to their specific needs,” Hayden said. “Stereotypically, we like to see pretty white teeth in dentistry, but I teach the students that losing a tooth for your oral health is OK – it could save your life,” Hayden said. “Our program emphasizes that if a student has a tooth that hurts, they may need to go to the dentist to get it pulled.”

Trujillo said a side effect of the program is that sometimes students will get out their floss and floss their teeth in the middle of the lunchroom at school.

Trujillo said one student at the school had really bad impacted wisdom teeth that needed to be removed, and Hayden was able to find a surgeon who could take them out.

“This kid was just so happy about that,” he said. “Now he’s graduated, he’s working hard and he will never forget that. And he takes care of his teeth.”

In addition to oral health education, the program also provides free oral health care to students. The Cincinnati Dental Society holds a screening day, and students who need care are seen by community volunteer dentists and specialists as well as at the Crest Smile Shoppe. Between 2011 and 2016, about $16,500 worth of free care was provided to about 20 students. Care typically includes simple and surgical extractions, night guards, restorations and teeth cleanings.

In 2017, The Ohio State University’s Mobile Dental Coach came to the school and Dr. Canise Bean, her staff and dental students provided free dental care to students right at the school. About $4,000 in free care was provided to 14 students. Care included comprehensive exams, X-rays, cleanings, fluoride, sealants and restorations. Students who needed additional care were seen at the McMicken Dental Center.

Hayden said one of the biggest challenges the program has faced is establishing trust with the students.

“We needed to let them know we were there for them, not to lecture to them,” Hayden said. “They put up a wall, and you need to earn their trust, and they need to see that you really care for them to let you in.”

Trujillo said Hayden and her team have built up trust with the students over the years because of their consistency in coming back.

“Their dedication is outrageously specific, and you don’t get this anywhere,” he said. “One of the kids said, ‘You’re different because you don’t just leave, you come back.’ ”

He added that this level of trust has helped some of the students overcome their fear of going to the dentist, which can be one of their biggest barriers to access to care. He also said that hearing information about oral health from a dentist is more impactful for the students than hearing about it from a teacher.

“These are dentists, not teachers talking to you,” he said. “Not only dentists, but dentists who care enough to come into school. All of our youth understand who is here because they’re paid, or because they want to be here. They pick up on that right away, and the students know they want to be here.”

Hayden said that they have seen the program impact the students at the school by lowering absences due to tooth infection. She said the kids are also gaining knowledge.

“We’re empowering them with knowledge,” she said. “If no one has ever taught them to care for their teeth, how are they going to instill a value of care for their children? I look at it as a domino effect.”

Trujillo said a big impact of the program is also helping to build the students’ self-esteem. He said many of the students are afraid to smile and show their teeth. He said Hayden emphasizes being proud of your teeth, regardless of where you’re at, and she talks about the difference between a healthy smile and a cosmetic smile.

“It goes beyond dentistry to taking care of themselves,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s about the youth feeling better about themselves when the dentists leave. That’s what we work for.”

Since 2011, partners for this program have been: community dentists and specialists, Cincinnati Dental Society, CDS’s Oral Health Foundation, Lighthouse Community School, Bootsy Collins Foundation, Cincinnati Free Food Bank and Body Wellness, Henry Schein Dental, Crest Smile Shoppe, The Ohio State University (OHIO Project) H.O.M.E. Coach and McMicken Dental Center.

The ODA’s Access to Dental Care Program Award honors an outstanding program that helps reduce the access to care problem in Ohio by offering free or reduced fee dental care to underserved populations. 


Lighthouse Youth & Family Services is located at 401 E. McMillan, Cincinnati, OH 45206. For more information, call 513.221.3350 or visit

Hayden Family Dental is located at 9200 Montgomery Road, Building G, Suite 20-B, Cincinnati, OH 45242. For more information, call 513.791.4500 or visit