From food banks and libraries, to child care providers and dentists, community partnerships enable Head Start programs to provide comprehensive services for children and families. The Montclair Child Development Center (MCDC) of New Jersey has been supporting children’s dental care through a partnership with Dr. Nicole McGrath-Barnes and her practice for nearly 20 years.

“I noticed that MCDC was in my community and I proposed to volunteer as an oral health educator,” says Dr. McGrath Barnes, reflecting on the start of the partnership. “I started visiting the center once a week to offer dental care education with students, staff, and families. Through these weekly visits, I got to know the MCDC community and learned more about Head Start and what it does for children and families. I was impressed with Head Start’s mission and wanted to partner in a meaningful way.”

Through her work with MCDC, Dr. McGrath Barnes saw the immense need for accessible dental care, leading her to found KinderSmile to reach more children.

“In the beginning, I noticed many students with oral decay. In response, I offered to dedicate one day a week in my office to see students for emergency dental care at no charge. During one particular visit, a young student came with an abscess the size of a golf ball. Her family couldn’t find a Medicaid-accepting dentist within a 5-mile radius of their home. I was heartbroken to see this child and their family struggling with what is a preventable condition when there is access to good dental care. It was then I was led to start KinderSmile 15 years ago.”

Through many years, and now a pandemic, KinderSmile and MCDC continue to work together to support families.

“What’s beautiful about our partnership is that whenever we need something, we can call each other,” says MCDC Health and Nutrition Manager Katherine Eschavez. “They supply oral health education, treatment, prophylaxis, everything our families need.”

Before COVID, Dr. McGrath Barnes and her team made on-site visits to provide screenings for every child. While the pandemic has put those visits, as well as toothbrushing in the classroom, on hold, dental health education has become even more important.

“We provide families with fluoridated toothpaste and promote fluoride varnish. We make sure they know about the importance of dental hygiene and having a dental home for preventative care,” says Katherine. “We know very well that dental care for babies should start upon the eruption of the first tooth, so we’re making sure that parents and pregnant women know that so they get that care early.”

Oral health is an essential component of Head Start’s comprehensive care. MCDC and KinderSmiles’ enduring partnership ensures their community has access to the dental care they need. Head Start programs seeking dental partners to offer services pro bono can reach out to the American Dental Association or their state dental association.

Lucy Truschel

Lucy Truschel is NHSA's former manager of communications.

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