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Help toward a happy, healthy smile

Tyrenna Swet, 7, of Duluth holds a lizard so that dental hygienist Emma Junger of Duluth can demonstrate how to brush teeth during a presentation by Just Kids Dental at the Damiano Center in Duluth on Monday. (Clint Austin /

As a mother, Sukhwinder Kaur deeply appreciated the oral-health education program at the Damiano Center’s Kids Cafe after lunch on Monday.

“The kids listen better when it’s not their mom,” said Kaur, whose 7-year-old daughter, Kirn Singh, was among a host of children paying rapt attention to the lively, dinosaur puppet-infused program offered by the Two Harbors’ nonprofit Just Kids Dental. The organization offers free oral-health clinics throughout the school year to four counties — St. Louis, Lake, Carlton and Douglas — and its educational outreach extends into summer.

“Tooth decay is the most common chronic disease in children,” said Laura Jackson, program manager for Just Kids Dental. “It affects their eating, their sleep and their ability to learn. Just think about having a toothache in class.”

Just Kids Dental hit three community centers on Monday alone, leaving an impression as strong as a dinosaur bite everywhere they went. They taught kids that the proper length for a single usage of floss is about as long as the person’s foot and that brushing takes two minutes to properly reach all sides of one’s teeth.

Another lesson, too: “Don’t forget to brush your teeth two times a day,” Kirn said, whose gleaming teeth enamels were proof of her own positive habits.

Unfortunately, Jackson said, not all children, especially impoverished ones, are as good at oral-health care as Kirn.

“A lot of the kids we see don’t even have a toothbrush in their homes,” she said.

Just Kids Dental helps to rectify that shortfall. Each child — roughly 150 during Monday’s tour of Duluth — received a toothbrush, tube of toothpaste and other oral-health products.

Founded in 2006, Just Kids Dental began as a grass-roots effort to improve dental health across socioeconomic lines. Now, there is firm support from the philanthropic sector as local foundations make up a lion’s share of its funding. Medicaid reimburses 30 percent on the dollar of Just Kids Dental’s oral-health care claims.

Oscar Lopez, coordinator of Damiano’s Kids Cafe, appreciated the effort.

“We try to have three special programs a week,” he said. “The kids are really into it.”