5 Years of Smile Guardian:

How a Covid Pivot Turned a Small Education Initiative into a Full-blown Program

When we first introduced our Smile Guardian initiative in February of 2019, the goal was to find a way to engage dental offices in our mission to increase oral health literacy in under resourced communities across the nation.

At our annual Celebration of Smiles event, held during the Chicago Dental Society’s Midwinter Meeting, our executive director unveiled this new initiative designed to give dental practices a way to equip at-risk kids with the information and basic tools needed to prevent decay.

America's ToothFairy executive director, Jill Malmgren announces the Smile Guardian initiative to a room full of dental professionals at the Chicago Dental Society's MidWinter Meeting in 2019.

“We hear so many stories of children who not only know little about proper oral health but also lack basic oral hygiene products at home,” Jill Malmgren said during her presentation to an audience of invited guests and media. “Unfortunately, most dental practices don’t have access to these kids, but our partner clinics and community volunteers do. They only need the resources.”

Through the initiative, benefactors could help us distribute Protect Your Smile Resource Kits to organizations and schools that work with at-risk populations. Depending on the level of support, up to 2,000 kids could learn about proper oral health and how to take care of their smiles every day. 

The very first kits contained scripted oral health lessons and activities, toothbrushes, educational activity sheets, mirror clings and brushing charts to remind children to brush, and Smile Drive Toolkits to raise oral health awareness within the community.

Initially, participation in the initiative was lackluster.

“We approached this project with an entrepreneurial spirit of experimentation,” Jill said recently. “We wanted to give dental offices a way to reach children in their own communities as well as a tangible result for their specific practice. What we didn’t have to offer them was proof of concept, so early adoption was slower than expected.”

The first set of Protect Your Smile kits were funded by MGE: Management Experts, who made a sizable donation after holding an auction during their annual conference for dental practices in the spring of 2019. A portion of the proceeds funded 20 kits that reached 9,800 kids and their caregivers across the country.

Participation from MGE helped us develop the process of distribution and get a few pictures of the results to promote the initiative on social media. But as soon as the project started rolling the pandemic shutdowns brought progress to a halt.

Children attending an afterschool program at a Boys and Girls Club in Oshkosh, Wisconsin smile for the camera after receiving Smile Guardian kits sponsored by Patterson Dental in 2023.

“Like everyone else we expected to get back to normal quickly,” Jill added. Unfortunately, that was not the case. “After a few weeks it was obvious that we needed a plan to keep moving forward with our mission. Since most of our member clinics were shut down, we focused on awareness and education instead of access to care.”

In addition to quickly launching an education resource page on our website and a sponsored online campaign that challenged kids to learn about oral health for prizes, our team concentrated more time and energy on developing new materials which have evolved over time.

“We were encouraged when our first dental office, Cleveland Smile Center, committed to give monthly to support Smile Guardian kits for kids in their area,” Jill said. “And one year later children in and around Cleveland received their kits.” But that wasn’t all. Corporate sponsors were also interested in the initiative. Patterson Dental and Delta Dental of North Carolina also sponsored kits. By 2021 77 kits had been distributed to more than 12,000 kids.

Left: Staff from Community Oral Health Initiatives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania pose with their superhero-themed kit sponsored by Cranberry. They use the kit during community outreach events. Right: Elementary students in Sunman, Indiana receive their materials sponsored by MGE: Management Experts during an educational presentation in their classroom.

Over time, as more sponsors participated, different kits were developed to address different situations, such as back-to-school events for elementary-aged children, story time events at libraries for preschoolers, and kits for food banks and other organizations that serve families facing food insecurity.

“Our latest kits teach kids how their diet impacts their oral health to help them make better food choices and know to clean their teeth after unhealthy treats,” Jill added. “With each new audience and topic, we have the opportunity to create new resources and adjustments to make distribution more efficient.”

One example is the brushing charts. Initially kids were given a paper sheet to track their weekly dental hygiene habits but they could only be used once. Dry erase magnets replaced them so kids could wipe and reuse, but they were expensive to produce and during the pandemic magnets became scarce.

The multi-piece kits were also a challenge to hand out to a gaggle of kids so the recipient organizations began purchasing bags to stuff with materials before handing them out to the kids.

“The solution became obvious,” Jill explained. “We tested plain, plastic goody bags and discovered that even permanent markers could be wiped off of them. We opted to replace the dry erase magnets with plastic bags with the brushing chart printed on them so they could be reused week after week. The bags also made distribution easier for the organizations so we hit two birds with one stone.”

In the five years since the Smile Guardian initiative was first introduced, four kits have been developed that can be sponsored for as little as $3 per child and can be custom branded at higher donation levels. Working with corporate sponsors including MGE, Delta Dental, and Patterson Dental has made it possible to create different themed kits. Each year brings the potential for newer options and more diverse audiences. Currently, anti-vaping and sports safety kits are planned for development to reach teens and tweens as well.

More than 130,000 children and their caregivers have received oral health instruction through sponsored Smile Guardian kits and the numbers continue to grow. That’s why we’re excited to announce that in the coming months Smile Guardian will be upgraded from a short-term initiative project to a full-blown program of America’s ToothFairy! This change will include a new web page made possible with a contribution by Cranberry that will make selecting the kits you would like to sponsor more streamlined and convenient.

To receive program launch updates and notifications when new kit content is available, submit the form below:

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