Alarmed by a survey showing that people who are homeless are 12 times more likely to have dental problems than people who have stable housing, Boston Fellow Tabitha Lewis realized the need for a program that aims to provide oral health education to children in homeless shelters located in the Roxbury neighborhood. Lewis, a student at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, partnered on her project with Children’s Services of Roxbury.
Her project is named Coloring Smiles (which is inspired by Chance The Rapper’s Grammy-winning album “Coloring Book”). The program uses art, music and collaborative workshops in which kids co-create an oral health education and disease-prevention plan. Children in her program have been able to create music, artwork and many other artistically centered projects reflecting on how important they are as well as the importance of oral health care.
Lewis was surprised to find that parents were just as interested in the program as their children.
“I remember during one of my first sessions some parents decided to stay,” she said. “One of the parents started tapping out a beat on the table when it was time to do our dental raps. I was surprised at his willingness to participate and engage the children without being asked.”
Lewis is exploring multiple avenues to sustain Coloring Smiles beyond her Fellowship year. One possibility is recruiting and training first-year dental students to run the program. She will also approach Tufts’ chapter of the American Student Dental Association about adopting Coloring Smiles as a service project.
“If I’m unable to find a dental student or connect my program with a campus organization, I will train someone at the site how to teach the different brushing techniques and how to conduct workshops,” said Lewis. “I will also work with Colgate and SoniCare to acquire and sustain donations of oral health care products.”
Lewis’s interest in launching Coloring Smiles stems from watching her parents’ commitment to helping others by serving as foster parents. Lewis recalled how, as a child, her mother sat her down and explained that two siblings would be coming to stay with their family because they did not have a home.
“I was very young and didn’t know how to process the information she had given me,” said Lewis. “Looking back now, I can see that my parents fostering children, along with other experiences of serving my community, propelled my interest in developing Coloring Smiles.”
Reflecting on her experience as a Schweitzer Fellow, Lewis quotes a snippet of Octavia Butler’s dystopian novel “Parable of the Sower:” “All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you.”
“Being an Albert Schweitzer Fellow means that I can continue to be a change agent and to be changed,” she said. “I have seen and experienced the beauty that results from ‘touching’ lives of vulnerable people and being ‘touched’ by the communities I serve.”