Guardians of the Smile Creates Positive Oral Health Habits in Children

Marc Costantini and Dennis Walto


February is National Children’s Dental Health Month, and Dentistry Today is celebrating the event with a series of blogs focused on various aspects of pediatric care. #NCDHM

Dental care is a critical part of a person’s overall health and well-being. Unfortunately, many children in underserved communities lack access to quality dental services, which can translate into missed school days, poor school performance, pain, and health issues later in life. Studies published by the American Journal of Public Health and the Journal of Pediatrics correlate toothaches with lower grade point average and psychosocial well-being, respectively. 

With proper care and good habits, these issues are preventable. But given myriad obstacles to good oral health care—unhealthy food options, challenges in accessing and affording care, and the prioritization of medical health over dental health—it might take a superhero to solve them all. 

Enter the Tooth Guardian, the star of the Guardians of the Smile program, which combines the resources and expertise of Guardian and the Children’s Health Fund to bring quality dental care, education, and fun to children in communities across the United States.

In 2018, Guardian and the Children’s Health Fund embarked on a mission to ensure children do not fall behind in school and limit their potential because of poor dental health. To learn more about oral health today and create an effective program, Guardian surveyed more than 2,000 people in Texas, a large and diverse state.

The results were startling. One out of five Texans admitted that they hadn’t seen a dentist in five years or more, and only two in 10 Texans gave themselves an “A” for oral health. However, parents who gave themselves a higher grade rated their child’s oral health habits higher.

These results show that our partnership, though focused on children and oral health, must expressly engage and involve adults and community members to help create lifelong good habits.

Our Guardians of the Smile experiences bring together children and community members, parents and guardians, teachers, celebrities, the Tooth Guardian, and elected officials. We designed engaging and educational activities like Smile Pal and Food Fight that teach children about brushing, flossing, and choosing healthy food options in a fun (and messy!) way.

Thanks to efforts from our employee volunteers and partners, Guardians of the Smile has to date:

  • Supported more than 11,000 dental encounters, improving oral health across the nation
  • Generated awareness and excitement for oral health by bringing the program directly to schools in communities across the country: launched at a public school in Harlem, celebrated the Texas State Fair at the Jubilee Park Community Center in Dallas with Rep. Eric Johnson of the Texas House of Representatives, and wrapped up 2018 at Cook Elementary School in Austin
  • Donated more than $20,000 to Guardians of the Smile event site partners that will provide healthy food, education, and resources to the community
  • Provided hundreds of dental care kits to children, each with floss, toothpaste, and a toothbrush
  • Created and distributed free informational guides about dental health for parents and guardians, such as our fact sheet about surviving Halloween without any cavities.

We customize each Guardians of the Smile experience to the needs of the communities and the children we serve. 

“Building healthy lifestyles is a big part of our mission to revitalize and enrich the Southeast Dallas community,” said Ben Leal, president and chief executive officer at Jubilee Park and Community Center in Dallas. “We know that many health habits form at an early age, so the Guardians of the Smile event was the perfect way to get our kids the knowledge and resources to keep their smiles healthy and strong.”

Knowing that kids look up to their celebrity heroes, we involved high-profile talent to help the message stick. In New York City, China Anne McClain, star of the hit CW series Black Lightning, shared with kids how she acquired her superpowers by brushing her teeth. About our event in Austin, former pro football star and host Michael Griffin said, “The children in this city deserve to have bright and healthy smiles. Guardian and Children’s Health Fund are teaching kids about healthy habits, moderation, and self-esteem, lessons which will last for years.”

If you are looking to implement parts of our program in your practice or would like to see adults in your community become oral health advocates, don’t worry if you lack an actress, sports star, or giant toothbrush. Just get creative. What we’ve learned is that when you engage with kids and make learning fun, they listen.

Print out photos of healthy food. Draw what a healthy smile looks like. Ask children what makes them smile, and you’ll see them light up. You can cook, read, or play to make your point, because what children need is for adults to set an example. 

Guardians of the Smile aims to help even more children in 2019. We hope you will follow our journey and help make a difference in your communities as well. Remember, every child deserves a Tooth Guardian. And it could be you. 

Mr. Walto is chief executive officer of the Children’s Health Fund. He has more than 25 years of senior leadership experience with not-for-profit organizations in the United States and around the world. Over the past three decades, he has lived and worked in some of the world’s toughest places and built a professional network of leaders, activists, influencers, donors, and decision makers in 43 states and more than 20 countries across the globe. He received his master of arts degree from York St. John University with a thesis on positive organizational development.

Mr. Costantini is executive vice president, commercial and government markets, at the Guardian Life Insurance Company of America. In this role, he is charged with advancing the company’s commercial and government strategy and continuing its growth across all markets. He believes that Guardian’s partnership with the Children’s Health Fund showcases the best of Guardian and perhaps the best that companies can do when they put their values first. He is a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries, a member of the American Academy of Actuaries, and a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Actuaries. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Concordia University, located in Montreal, Canada.

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