Operation Healthy Family challenges obesity and offers oral hygiene
Inspired by their faith and passion for improving the lives and health of vulnerable children and families, Tommy and Paula Williams combine their interests and skills—restorative justice, sports and dental hygiene—in Operation Healthy Family (OHF).
They advocate for restorative justice, challenge obesity through sports programs, teach oral hygiene habits and partner with dentists to provide care for low-income people.
Believing God had a plan for him, Tommy prayed and had a vision to start a free after-school flag football program. He wrote a proposal to do that at Grant and Sheridan Elementary Schools.
After he started the program in 2010, Paula suggested the children use mouth guards. When fitting them, she noticed several had severe dental issues from a lack of brushing. So she suggested doing a pilot oral hygiene program at Grant to teach children to brush.
That's how his love of sports and her love of dental care combined into forming OHF in 2011 under Emmanuel Family Life Center. In 2012, it became incorporated as a nonprofit.
Tommy and Paula, who are members of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, chose the name "Operation" to be intentional about the mission to help youth and families be healthy through sports and oral hygiene.
The Ballers Youth Sports Club (BYSC) offers low-income third- to-12th-grade girls and boys affordable access to basketball education and addresses health and fitness disparities by promoting physical activities to prevent obesity.
In this program, which practices in the Hillyard Baptist Church gym, everyone plays, Tommy said.
Because many sports programs are costly, often youth in low-income families don't play. They need basketball shoes, as well knowing how to dribble.
If coaches just judge children by how well they play, those who lack the skill level to compete sit on the bench. In the BYSC program children and youth at risk of dropping out are trained, beginning with their skill levels, so they learn to play, Tommy said.
For boys of color in many programs, coaches do not look like them, but in this program, many of the coaches are people of color and can identify with all players, no matter their race or family's economic situation, he said.
The YMCA and Hoopfest sponsor players, so children who could not afford to play have scholarships to play in a basketball league and pay for equipment.
As players improve, they are given the opportunities to play with BYSC, AAU or YMCA basketball teams or SYSA or YMCA flag football teams.
"Along with teaching fundamentals of sports, volunteer coaches instill values of faith, honesty, respect, integrity, sportsmanship and leadership," Tommy said.
In 2018, the BYSC partnered with the Girl Scouts of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho to form their own Girl Scouts "Lady Ballers" basketball team.
Brush for the Future is also a program that involves everyone. It seeks to improve oral health among elementary school children in Spokane's poorest neighborhoods through prevention and early intervention, said Paula.
Partnering with teachers, administrators and school nurses, OHF instills positive peer pressure to establish healthy brushing habits. Students in grades K-6 in participating schools brush their teeth in their classrooms every day, she said.
Paula works in 36 classrooms in four schools. Through the schools, as well as community agencies—Catholic Charities, World Relief, Newtech Skill Center and local congregations—she assisted 4,000 people in 2018.
"Tooth decay is one of the most common health problems affecting children," she said. "So teaching oral hygiene habits at a young age is an investment in a child's future health."
For three years, Paula was full time oral health director with OHF. Recently, she accepted a position as operation manager with David Hone, DDS, to further her efforts to expand access to affordable dental care.
OHF in schools offers a week of oral health instruction on how to brush and floss, and why. Paula gathers with students from several classrooms to inspire them to take care of their teeth.
"I tell them that if they invest in their teeth by brushing and flossing, it's like a savings account. They will have the money they might spend on a root canal or crowns to spend to go to Disneyland or buy a car," she said.
Paula brings visual examples of bacterial colonies to the classroom to help students grasp an understanding of "why plaque removal is important."
Then she trains student leaders, not the usual ones who are outgoing, but ones who may be quiet. She encourages them to speak up. The student leaders carry the program on through the year.
Each classroom has a brushing station with a toothbrush for each child, thanks to the 2016 donation by Colgate of 10,000 toothbrushes and toothpaste. Students have taken toothbrushes home to family members.
As an entry task each day, one student holds a chart, showing children where to brush daily. In groups of four, students come up and brush for two minutes daily.
A pre- and post- plaque score is recorded during the Brush for the Future program as a way to measure the program's effectiveness.
Paula said plaque scores showed improvement after just six months of daily tooth brushing during class.
If students brush every day in class, it may be the only time they brush.
Paula also connects children with dental emergencies to different private dentists through OHF's Dental Access Partnership Program.
"Brush for the Future is about prevention, while Dental Access Partnership Program is about intervention," she said.
That program connects people on Medicaid ready for intervention with dental care needs and willing to work on prevention, so a dentist does not fix teeth and then have the person keep coming back because of not brushing and flossing.
"Why fill a tooth for the $33 Medicaid reimbursement, which is less than the cost, for people who will not maintain their teeth," she said.
In 2020, OHF plans to partner with faith communities and agencies to open a faith-based clinic through David's clinic, where staff speak Farsi, Spanish, Russian and Ukrainian, as well as English.
The Dental Access Partnership works with a diverse group of dental providers, many of whom are driven by their faith—Mormon, Muslim, Seventh-Day Adventist, Catholic and Protestant.
In 2015, OHF partnered with agencies like Catholic Charities to help residents in shelters and apartments have dental treatment from private dentists," he said.
"Now, we partner with the YWCA Domestic Violence Program, World Relief and other agencies to address dental needs of women, children, immigrants, veterans and elders," she said.
Originally from Chicago, Tommy played football at Eastern Washington University while studying criminal justice. After earning a bachelor's in 1992, he played one season in the Canadian Football League before breaking his ankle in his rookie season.
He was academic counselor for the men's football and women's soccer teams at Washington State University from 1996 to 1998 while studying for a master's degree in education.
After he married Paula in 2005, she encouraged him to finish his master's thesis.
Tommy also was a probation officer and football coach with the Nez Perce Tribe and worked with at-risk youth for the Coeur d'Alene Tribal School in DeSmet.
Recently, he has been teaching criminal justice with District #81's Newtech Skill Center, a trade school for juniors and seniors.
Paula earned a GED at the age of 16 and completed studies at Spokane Community College to become a dental assistant at the age of 19. As the daughter of an optometrist and microbiologist growing up in Seven Mile, Paula was always interested in health care.
She has worked both in private dental practices and in a community health clinic (CHAS) as a dental assistant. In 2010, she completed studies at Spokane Community College to be licensed as an expanded function dental auxiliary (EFDA). In that role, she does fillings after a dentist examines and drills the teeth.
For a while, she was the only EFDA with four dentists at the downtown Dennis Murphy CHAS Clinic, so they could serve more Medicaid patients.
Tommy and Paula, who each have two sons from previous marriages and two sons together, said they "are committed to raising future godly husbands."
"To do that, we need faith," he said.
"Our mission is to honor God, follow Christ and serve the community by offering support, services and programs to help strengthen families through collaboration and partnerships with other like-minded nonprofits and businesses," Tommy said.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, February, 2019