In 2005, more than a third of children from low-income families in Collier and surrounding counties had no access to basic dental care; 17,000 children were suffering from untreated tooth decay and acute dental problems.
The problem was clear, so a group of organizations implemented a solution.
The University of Florida College of Dentistry and the Naples Children & Education Foundation, founders of the Naples Winter Wine Festival, founded the NCEF Pediatric Dental Center on the Florida SouthWestern State College campus in Naples to provide access to care and improve the oral health of children in the community.
Primarily funded by grants from the NCEF, the NCEF Pediatric Dental Center has since completed over 135,000 patient visits in the past decade, including specialized care for children whose oral health needs are complex and require care in hospital operating rooms.
Two young sisters living in the area, Johanna and Elaina Backstrom, know all about complex care requiring surgery.
“Johanna and Elaina both had to have surgery in the hospital, their teeth were so bad,” Jacqueline Backstrom, the girls’ grandmother, said. “Elaina had been in pain for a while with her teeth before we could get everything set up on our end for their care.”
Johanna, 7, and Elaina, 5, — or ‘Jo’ and ‘Lani’ — moved from Iowa to Naples a year ago after their grandparents took temporary custody.
“Elaina was in a lot of pain,” Jacqueline said. “Every day we were administering Motrin, she could only eat things she didn’t have to chew; they both obviously needed dental care. Elaina’s teeth were rotted clear to the gum. Johanna had bad teeth, but they weren’t as deeply affected.”
The Florida Department of Children and Families helped guide the Backstroms to the NCEF Pediatric Dental Center, where director Lauren Governale, D.M.D., M.P.H., and the staff and dentists at the center took the girls under their wings. Backstrom sings praises about the professionalism and care Johanna and Elaina received, including the preparation and lead-up to a potentially scary experience in the hospital for their care.
“The staff, dentists and everybody associated with the dental center are so professional and so caring. They really wanted to get us in there; they were helpful with getting everything set up. It was a great experience, really,” Backstrom said. “The kids weren’t afraid. By the time they spoke with them in the hospital, the children were at ease. It was wonderful.”
Extractions, spacers, crowns — it took the whole nine yards — to restore the oral health and health of the girls’ teeth, at the same time easing the financial burden for the Backstrom family.
The NCEF Pediatric Dental Center accepts some private insurance, as well as Medicaid and Healthy KidsCompDent.
“The dental center is just such a blessing to this community. Without their support and their care I don’t know what some of these kids would do, I really don’t. We live in Naples, but of course not everyone takes their insurance — especially in Naples, it’s very difficult. If it weren’t for the NCEF Pediatric Dental Center, it would be tragic for this community and the children of the community that can’t afford to just go anywhere.”
The socioeconomic status of many in Collier and the surrounding counties is something Jacqueline and her husband have witnessed firsthand, having spent time volunteering with at-risk youth in the area. While Jacqueline’s husband, a native Floridian, used to pastor a church in Immokalee about an hour northeast of Naples, the Backstroms also spent 15 years serving the community. They truly saw it all.
“We worked with at-risk youth in Immokalee for years, and we saw the dental problems with those children,” Backstrom said. “I don’t know where the kids would be if it weren’t for this dental center; they’d be in pain and their teeth would be ruined for life. They could be making money in private practice, but the NCEF Pediatric Dental Center is making a sacrifice for our community.”
Most good stories have happy endings, and the Backstroms have one, too. The oral health needs of Johanna and Elaina are being addressed, dad has custody and the whole family is under one roof now. The two sisters love taking jazz and tap class, playing at school, fishing and doing anything outdoorsy.
Best of all, they’ve made a home not only in Naples this past year, but at the NCEF Pediatric Dental Center.