When children attend their appointments at the pediatric dental clinics associated with the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Dentistry, they can receive not only care for their teeth, but also enrichment for their minds.
Through a program by the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation called A Book Just for Me, the clinic is providing free books along with toothbrushes and toothpaste for each child at the end of a dental visit. Clarice Law Eyre, DMD, chair of the Department of Pediatric Dentistry and Community Oral Health, knew of the program from her previous role in California and wanted to bring it here to UTHSC.
“The thing that resonated with me was that the foundation promoted health and literacy together,” she said. “When I came here a year ago, I noticed that the population that we serve fits in very much with the population that Ella Fitzgerald wanted to support.”
The College of Dentistry treats all ages of children at the Dunn Dental Building on the UTHSC campus in Memphis and at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. Most of its patients are on TennCare, which provides coverage primarily to low-income families in Tennessee.
The foundation was started to fulfill Fitzgerald’s desire to promote love of music, literacy and reading, and health, particularly for people who are at risk or from disadvantaged backgrounds. In addition to operating the book program and other educational opportunities, the foundation supports students of music; assists organizations that provide free or low-cost health care, dental care, shelter, and food to those in need; and funds medical research in the areas of diabetes, heart disease, vision problems, and childhood illness.
According to the foundation’s executive director, Fran Morris Rosman, Fitzgerald had a passion for reading and a desire to help every child. Her foundation now donates approximately 200,000 new books, as well as pencils, crayons, and other supplies, each year. Rosman said teaching children to aspire to an education is an effective way to break the cycle of poverty and give them a better life.
“If you’re working with kids below the poverty line, wherever they’re living you might find some kind of electronic devices, maybe electronic games, but you often won’t find anything to read. There might not be a pencil for the kids to do their homework, there won’t be crayons, there won’t be anything to help the kids learn to use their minds and open their worlds,” she said. “The easiest way to do it is to get some books. If there are five kids in the family, and you give each child a book, all of a sudden, there’s a bookshelf in the house.”
Two-thousand books for children of all ages arrived in the UTHSC clinic’s first book order, filling shelves from floor to ceiling. “Basically, we tell the kids that they’re welcome to choose whatever books they want. We usually tell them to pick one, but sometimes our residents and students will get generous and give more than one,” Dr. Law Eyre said. “The picture books seem to have been going really, really quickly.”
Not only does providing books promote reading and education, Rosman said it can also help uneasy children get through their dental treatments. “If you have a child going to the dentist, he or she may be nervous or scared, but that kid is going to be there for a couple of hours. You’ve got them captive in your clinic – that’s the time to give them the tools they need to learn that education is really a ton of fun,” she said.
Dr. Law Eyre said, while parents are not always open to taking family advice from a dentist, she hopes to emphasize the importance of reading as a family. Her goal is in line with UTHSC’s vision to create healthy Tennesseans and thriving communities. “We are just trying to promote healthy choices and healthy families.”