Delta Dental of Washington is working to end oral health disparities through it's Operation Toothbrush program.

Operation Toothbrush: A Whole Year of Smiles

February 18, 2021

“Imagine if a toothbrush has an impact to improve the overall health of a student so students are able to focus more in school” explains Kebron Fikadu, Delta Dental of Washington H.R. Recruitment Coordinator, about what inspired her idea for a toothbrush donation program that distributes oral health kits (toothbrush, floss, and toothpaste) to those in need.

The Early Beginnings

Before joining the Delta Dental of Washington team, Fikadu worked as an intern with Foster High School in Tukwila, Washington. Working alongside Mrs. Cyphers, the on-time graduation specialist, Fikadu assisted students with fulfilling academic requirements and mentored struggling youth. It was this experience that brought awareness to the challenges and impact that having access to everyday essential items, such as a toothbrush, has on a developing child.

During the 2018-2019 academic year, Washington Public Schools had 500,000+ students qualifying for Free and Reduced Lunch. Student beneficiaries included over 8,000 foster children, 33,000 homeless students, and 23,000 migrant students. Children who come from low-income households are twice as likely to experience oral health issues than children who come from a higher-income household.

Tooth decay is one of the most common diseases affecting children in the United States. One out of 5 children, ages 5 to 11-years-old will go with at least one untreated decayed tooth. This has detrimental effects on a child’s quality of life, including problems eating, speaking, and learning.

After making regular donations of toothbrushes and toothpaste, at the request of a past colleague, Fikadu knew she had the opportunity for something bigger.

From Idea to Program

Fikadu spent weeks reaching statics around Washington students receiving free or reduced lunch, students experiencing homelessness, and other barriers they faced. With consultation, advice, and a few no’s, she developed a detailed project plan.

“The number one thing I took from this experience is a curiosity to understand why I got a “no” and identifying solutions to address no’s. Ultimately, it helped me move the project forward and make adjustments.”

After finalizing the program plan, it was time to present it to the senior management team and propose a budget.

Pandemic Pivot

With the rapid spread of COVID-19, the program progression was paused, but it brought new opportunities to make a much larger impact.

To support the increasing struggles brought on by COVID-19, Delta Dental of Washington and the Arcora Foundation came together to create an “Operation Toothbrush.” Through tireless outreach and coordination, they worked with school districts, food banks, and even senior centers to get kits in the hands of people already dealing with so much in light of the pandemic that buying oral health supplies wasn’t anywhere on their to-do list.

“It’s not ‘just’ a toothbrush. That’s something we take for granted,” said Fikadu. “Toothbrushes have a large impact, but it’s not going to be a priority for those struggling financially. It’s a piece they don’t have to worry about.”

With over 35,000 kits delivered in 2020, Operation Toothbrush plans to expand even more and provide even more oral health supplies to those in need in Washington State.

The Operation Toothbrush team hasn’t been able to do in person drop off donation due to pandemic restrictions, but the program has seen a positive sentiment overall for the recipients.

“We’re providing a sense of security for vulnerable youth without expecting anything in return of them.”

About the Program

Over the past year, we donated 35,000 oral health kits to 22 schools and community organizations across the state. And there are plans to grow these efforts even more in 2021. This all thanks to a team of people who live our mission and value oral health. And a special thank you to, Kebron Fikadu for being a leader within our organization and inspiring us to give back.

If you'd like to learn more about Operation Toothbrush or other company donations and programs, visit our "Community Giving" page.

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