Big blue bus brings dental services to South County youth

Published on: January 19, 2012

Kelli Johnson says as she opens the door and the gateway to dental awareness for young people without access to other dental services across South Hillsborough County. Melody Jameson Photo

Kelli Johnson says as she opens the door and the gateway to dental awareness for young people without access to other dental services across South Hillsborough County. Melody Jameson Photo


RUSKIN – More than 1,100 youngsters were treated for dental problems in 10 hospital emergency rooms across Hillsborough County during 2010.

For every dollar spent on preventative measures, $15 is saved in dental treatments.

Dental disease is the number one childhood ailment, five times more common than asthma, yet childhood dental decay is 100 percent preventable.

These are the figures “that get me up each morning,” says Kelli Johnson, dental programs manager with the Suncoast Clinics network. And, they’re the facts that support the passion this widely experienced former dental hygienist brings to the spiffy mobile dental coach she oversees.

The mobile dental unit, about the size of a luxury touring bus, has three treatment stations where staff hygienists and assistants work to prevent those expensive hospital emergency room visits for the children of their low-income clientele and to encourage lifetimes of the dental awareness that can avoid serious problems in the mouth.

“Our mission,” Johnson asserts, “is to connect youngsters who might have no other options with a dental home” and in the process share dental knowledge, catch potential problems early, even stave off life-threatening conditions. Not long ago, she adds, her staff saw a four-year-old with an abscessed tooth so serious he immediately was rushed to clinic treatment. Such a condition, she notes, can be life-threatening if the infection travels to the brain.

At present, the dark blue mobile unit, technicians, office manager and driver aboard, travels the southern part of Hillsborough County three days per week, visiting a network of sites in weekly or monthly routines to see low-income youngsters high school age and younger, Johnson says.

That network includes such sites as the Joyce Ely Clinic on 14th Avenue, now part of the Suncoast family of facilities, and the Wimauma Academy, a charter school serving primarily the Hispanic population, and the Suncoast facility in Brandon and Kids Place, a shelter for children removed from their homes for safety reasons, and the day care center at one of the Good Samaritan missions.

She would like to add all 30 South County Title I schools – those schools where 85 percent of the student body is in the free lunch program – to her network, she adds, but so far Hillsborough’s county school system is unwilling to cooperate in the effort. Given that the objective is encouraging sound dental practices in low-income families, routine coach calls at such schools seems a natural fit, but the school administration does not see it that way, Johnson says, and she has no explanation for that position.

Her mobile dental program does, however, partner with Florida WIC, the Women, Infants and Children system fielded by the Florida Department of Health, to provide services aboard the coach to WIC clients in a campaign dubbed” WIC Smiles 4 U”

Johnson’s big blue bus was acquired with a $500,000 federal grant and was delivered in October, 2010, after she designed it specifically to serve the dental needs of young people. Her program also is supported by grants and by donations from area churches along with caring area residents and organizations.

And, in the 18 months since the coach hit the road, over 1,600 youngsters have cuddled its toys or slipped into its treatment stations or asked questions about its instruments as hygienists and assistants conducted oral screenings, performed cleanings, applied sealants or made referrals to the stationary dental clinic at a Suncoast site.

Johnson’s goal is to make the mobile dental program self-sustaining, she says with a note of pride, as she envisions every chair filled by a youngster who, but for the big blue coach, would have no other access to dental care.

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson