Fifteen thousand smiles… and counting

Dr Linda Greenwall at a party for 600 children who attend the daily Live Smart toothbrushing programme in the townships

Linda Greenwall was born into a family of dentists. She grew up in Cape Town and after completing her schooling at Rustenberg and Westerford, continued in the footsteps of her grandfather, father and uncle by studying dentistry at the University of Witwatersrand. 

After qualifying, she worked at her father’s practise; and then went on to study further in London, where she established her Specialist Dentist and Prosthodontist practise.

Eleven years ago, coinciding with a milestone birthday, Linda realised a long-held ambition to create a charity organisation when she established the Dental Wellness Trust. She explained that she had been inspired by the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who advised that one look to the parsha coinciding with one’s Hebrew birthdate to identify one’s life mission and a way of doing good in the world.

The Dental Wellness Trust (DWT) was started in London in 2011 with the mission to improve the general health and wellbeing of young children through dental wellness — especially those whose families were unable to afford the most basic dental care. 

“We believe that good oral health is a basic human right, yet dental decay is still the most common childhood disease world-wide”, says Dr Greenwall. 

The establishment of DWT in London was closely followed by the opening of the Dental Wellness Foundation (DWF) — the charity’s counterpart in South Africa. First established in Mfuleni and Khayelitsha, it has since expanded to have reached over 15 000 children living in some of the Western Cape’s most disadvantaged communities. Linda explains that many South African families are unable to afford dental care even at the most basic level of owning a toothbrush and toothpaste. If they are able to afford these, there is often a single toothbrush shared by the entire household. 

Compounding this problem, children arriving hungry at school buy cheap sugary sweets from playground vendors, that they keep in their mouths for long periods, releasing a constant flow of sugar. By the time DWF check their teeth at age seven, the teeth have often completely dissolved. By age twelve, 80% of children are found to have a high decay rate; and by the age of 15, this statistic has grown to 85%. 

DWF have collaborated with Ikamva LaBantu and UWC and worked with schools to conduct research and make a meaningful difference to the oral health of Cape Town’s residents.

At the coal-face of the entire project is a dedicated group of extraordinary women, referred to as Toothbrush Mamas. They run the Livesmart schools programme, visiting participating schools and providing each child with a toothbrush. The mamas teach the children how to brush their teeth, and visit daily to check on the programme and to teach the teachers. The toothbrushes stay at the school, and the children use them there every day. Feedback from the children and their parents is that they love the programme and the well-being factor of feeling clean and healthy. 

When Covid hit South Africa, the DWF responded to the rise in poverty and need for food security, by adding another layer to their contribution, by introducing 12 soup kitchens — eight in Khayelitsha and four in Mfuleni.  

This too is run by the amazing sisterhood of ‘mamas’, who start their day very early, cooking the day’s meal, then travelling to the schools to run the Livesmart programme, and then returning to serve the food to queues of hungry people. Sadly, it has been decided to close down the feeding scheme, as although the food itself is donated by Ladles of Love and sa Harvest, the huge running costs are proving too much. 

The organisation is currently participating in three research programmes in collaboration with UWC, using their mobile dental truck to visit schools and check the children’s teeth. Another dental truck is currently being built, using funds raised in partnership with Rotary. 

Looking ahead, there are plans to ramp up the tooth-brushing side of the project, with new programmes about to start at a mine in Kimberly, and in the Eastern Cape. 

The project is also growing in the UK where the DWT has been going into refugee communities since last December, to provide dental care. 

There is also a project underway in Nairobi; and plans afoot to start a programme in Israel, together with Hadassah, to work with Bedouin communities. 

Dr Greenwall has acknowledged the huge amount of work done by co-chairs Karen Tollman and Rebecca Bryer, to build and grow the Dental Wellness Foundation during Covid times. “We are immensely grateful for their help, together with that of all the members of the Dental Wellness Foundation Advisory Board including Dr Clifford Yudelman and Robyn Zinman, and Dr Ronit Okin.”

She concludes, “It’s absolutely vital that we are able to continue providing our supervised tooth brushing programmes. People living with poor oral health are at an increased risk of many health complications and potentially more susceptible to the effects of any virus. Therefore it’s essential that those most in need have access to a toothbrush and toothpaste in order to keep their mouths clean and healthy. Doing nothing is simply not an option.”

The Toothbrush Mamas singing songs from their schools programme, at a party to thank them for their amazing work in Khayelitsha, Mfuleni and Sea Point

• Published in the PDF edition of the June 2022 issue – Click here to read it.

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