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Pandemic Pivot: Colgate Bright Smiles, Bright Futures Mobile Dental Van Visits Go Virtual While Vehicles Deliver Essential Supplies

Strong partnerships enable Colgate to reach communities in need.

By Dawna Fields, Director, Bright Smiles, Bright Futures Operations
February 2021

For most people, brushing twice a day is a routine healthy habit. But for children in underserved communities—some of whom do not regularly see a dentist—good oral hygiene isn’t something that can be taken for granted. Kids from low-income families are twice as likely as those from higher-income ones to develop cavities, which can lead to pain, infections, and missed school days if not promptly treated.

For over 30 years, Colgate’s Bright Smiles, Bright Futures (BSBF) Program has been bringing free oral health education to children in need all around the world. While there are several components to the program, the dental vans—each one nearly as large as a mobile home and equipped with child-sized dental chairs, educational games, and dentists and hygienists who perform screenings—are undoubtedly one of the most engaging features of the U.S. program.

During the school year, nine of these vans make stops throughout the country, visiting schools, churches, libraries, and community centers. With the global pandemic in 2020, however, Colgate needed to find another way to reach kids.

In March 2020, we made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend the mobile dental van program. Instead of hitting pause however, we jumped into action. By July, the van education program had gone virtual and the vehicles were delivering essential hygiene supplies to communities in need.

“They couldn’t afford to buy soap.”

With a pandemic well underway, disparities continued to widen. Many families struggled to pay rent and buy food. Parents lost their jobs; they couldn’t afford to buy soap and toothpaste. The company was making and donating soap as part of a partnership with the World Health Organization, and sending its portfolio of health and hygiene products to community nonprofits and hospitals. Thanks to the quick coordination of our longtime partners like Feeding America, we mobilized with communities to send our vans to distribute a portion of the 1.4 million bars of specially-packaged #SafeHands soap—plus body wash, dishwashing liquid soap, toothbrushes, and toothpaste for adults and kids in the U.S. The goods added up to a donation of $8 million.

specially-packaged #SafeHands soap

Recipients have been beyond grateful. We recently got a call from an administrator at the Yonkers, NY public school system, thanking us for the pallets of products they received. She told me, “I have one student who has not taken a bath in 10 days, because they have no soap, no nothing.” Bright Smiles, Bright Futures had an authentic connection to the community, and the teams working on this were so agile, that we were able to move quickly and really have an impact.

Mobile vans go virtual

At Colgate, we know that oral health is connected to overall health and wellness, in addition to academic success. But how do you reach the most vulnerable kids in a meaningful way during a pandemic?

We didn’t want kids around the country to miss out on the chance to chat with dental professionals and learn about keeping their smiles healthy. The teachers and kids at Minnie Hughes Elementary in Hollywood, SC, had been hoping to get a van visit in June. It would have been their first one ever.

Minnie Hughes Elementary is a title 1 school , meaning it receives federal funding because a high percentage of students come from low-income families. At Minnie Hughes, the interim principal Cindy Smalls shared with me that 96% of the children live below the poverty line. Situated in a rural area, Hollywood also lacks access to opportunities that are more prevalent in urban centers. Kids in nearby Charleston, SC, for instance, are at least in closer proximity to many dentists, and the BSBF mobile dental van has visited kids who live in Charleston public housing several times over the years.

As part of the BSBF program, we ship educational materials to teachers to use in their classrooms. We also have digital assets, so teachers and children can access educational videos online. But most kids find the in-person mobile van visits the most compelling. Our solution? Make the vans virtual.

Since June, the virtual van program has been fostering Colgate’s mission of working toward a zero-cavity future for all kids. It’s presented like a live Zoom meeting so kids can raise their hands and ask questions. We also created a short video featuring cartoon characters—including a cartoon van—that goes along with the dentist or hygienist who does the live presentation.

virtual van programm

Before the virtual visit, informational pamphlets and samples of toothbrush and toothpaste are delivered to the school or community organization that is facilitating the “visit.” In 2020, we reached 20.8 million kids in the U.S.

Smalls, who has worked in education in South Carolina for 40 years and is an active member of the Continental Societies, Incorporated—a non-profit group of diverse women dedicated to helping children of all backgrounds reach their full potential—was very familiar with the real-life BSBF van. While she was initially disappointed that the kids at Minnie Hughes Elementary would not get to have that experience, the virtual van exceeded her expectations.

“We weren’t sure how it was going to work, but the virtual van was wonderful,” she says. “We currently have both in-person and virtual remote students [at Minnie Hughes] during COVID, and students were able to join from both ends. We had really high engagement. Some parents sat in their cars in the school parking lot just to use our wi-fi hotspot and have access to the event. Teachers and even our school nurse said it was really helpful, and the students were so excited. We were all very impressed.”

Part of what makes the virtual van program so engaging is that the volunteer dentists and hygienists bring a personal touch. In October, some showed up on screen dressed in Halloween costumes; in December, Santa popped in to say hello.

Planning ahead

Despite the success of the virtual van program, we want to resume the in-person van visits as soon as it is safe. In 2021, we expect that we’ll have a hybrid of the mobile and virtual vans. The physical vans are currently being equipped with HEPA filters, and disinfecting and social distancing protocols are under review. Our priority is to make sure the attendees and staff will be safe.

Even once the pandemic has ended and thevans are again making stops across the country, we expect virtual visits to continue so we can reach as many children as possible and build a healthier future for all.

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