A family is bound to get excited at the sight of an ice cream truck coming down their street. The sight of a mobile dental van, though, may not have the same effect.

Allan O’Shea, president of the Bestie Valley Community Center (BVCC), hopes to change that. As a longtime Copemish and Thompsonville resident and local business owner, O’Shea has learned firsthand the struggles that rural families have accessing these types of services.

“After some local play groups, parents and community members would participate in lively discussions on all the ways in which area families experience isolation from critical services,” explained O’Shea. “They’d say, ‘Everything – medical, dental, even laundromats are at least 12-16 miles away – and we don’t even have broadband internet in our school or most neighborhoods.’”

It was in the spirit of these discussions that, in 2018, led to the creation of the BVCC, a nonprofit organization that brings charitable and education resources to the rural areas in northern Manistee and southern Benzie counties. One of the organization’s first projects was helping bring broadband internet to Betsie Valley Elementary School last spring.

Following the broadband internet project, the organization became interested in dental services after doing research that linked dental pain with increased student school absences.

“We know that dental neglect can compromise not only a child’s self-esteem and availability for learning, but as an adult, this same neglect often resulting in missing teeth, restricts employment opportunities,” he said.

For some years, a dental hygienist from Northwest Michigan Health Services, Inc. (NMHSI) has traveled to a large number of elementary schools with the necessary equipment to provide dental screenings, fluoride treatments, and sealants. Each school, however, had a different physical location where services were provided, and some were not ideal.

This motivated the BVCC came up with a plan for more efficient and standardized procedures to take place in one location – a mobile dental van.

After 18 months of fundraising, they raised the $90,000 needed to cover the cost of the van, furnishings, equipment, and first year of administrative expenses. BVCC has partnered with NMHSI to design the small mobile dental office, as well as procure a lot of the equipment and labor.

“We are grateful to a large community of individual donors, including Cherryland, who saw the mobile dental van as a need and a worthy project,” he said. “We saw a large group of community members who will do anything to help those who just cannot take that extra step to get to a clinic for services.”

The van, paired with a dental hygienist, will travel and deliver services across the Betsie Valley region, including schools and their surrounding communities like Onekama, Bear Lake, Kaleva Norman Dickson, and more. And while children are their primary clients, BVCC hopes to have the van running year-round, using it to talk and share resources with residents about oral health and self-care.

“When parents see their kids getting relief from pain and ultimately a more confident smile, we know that many will have their own fears relieved and seek their own dental services.”

The van is slated to be ready to roll by the time children return to school. BVCC recognizes there could be disruptions to the school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped them.

“The pandemic has actually opened the door for this van to serve some additional purposes,” he explained. “For instance, NMHSI is planning to use the van for COVID-19 testing, migrant farm camp services, telehealth and remote access medical visits.”

The BVCC dental van will be a common sight for the rural residents of Manistee and Benzie counties. And the hope is that it puts smiles on their faces.

“Families experiencing a good feeling when they see the dental dan – that is our goal.”