LUDINGTON — When Dr. Marilyn Stolberg talks about the collaboration between Family Health Care and FiveCAP Head Start, her passion for the program is evident.

It is that passion that will likely be missed in the mobile dental program, which allows Stolberg and a staff of hygienists to perform exams and cleanings on students in FiveCAP’s Head Start Centers.

During its recent Head Start Parent Volunteer Honors Banquet, FiveCAP honored the retiring dentist for the work she’s done with the program since the 2006-07 school year.

“What a loss for us,” said FiveCAP Health and Safety Coordinator Micki Slocum. “Dr. Stolberg has a mission of helping children and it has been her love and so we, regretfully, will honor her request to retire. We don’t like it and it will be very difficult for us to fill these shoes. I just want to publicly thank Dr. Stolberg from all of us.”

In the last seven years, approximately 2,000 children have received dental care through the program. Stolberg explained to the crowd gathered for the banquet how the children are better served in their classrooms.

“It used to be, in the early days with me at Family Health Care, these little kids would come to us,” Stolberg said. “They’d put their little snowsuits on and bundle up and the driver would bring them over in their little, mini, yellow buses and these kids were really lost. And we never knew if we’d have three kids come in to see us in the clinic or whether we’d get 20 kids.

“And so it was really goofy that we weren’t helping the kids as well as we might. So we started to think, what is the best way we can do that? And we started to visit the kids in the schools — in your Head Start centers and at the Early Head Start socializations.”

Stolberg pointed out one parent whose child she first examined when she was an infant and still in his mother’s arms. This child, she said, had probably had 10 dental exams already, and she’d only graduated from preschool a few days before.

“Hopefully,” she added, “what we’ve done for these kids is establish that the most normal thing in the world is that they should go in and get a dental exam every six months and take care of themselves.”

Slocum explained in more detail how the program works, emphasizing the benefit of providing these services to young children in an environment they are already comfortable. By spanning the visits over two days, Stolberg and the staff are able to take their time, relate to the children and make them feel more comfortable.

Each child is sent home that day with a toothbrush, toothpaste and dental floss as well as a sheet for their parents explaining the treatments they received as well as referrals for follow-up work, if needed. Because Head Start is a program for families whose income falls within 100 percent of poverty, all of the dentist’s referrals are to providers who accept Medicaid.

“For our families that don’t have insurance, Family Health Care provides a sliding scale to FiveCAP and FiveCAP pays any outstanding balances,” Slocum said.

Working together with one of the administrative staff members at Family Health Care, Slocum tries to ensure that all the children who are referred for follow-up care receive the recommended treatment.

“We try to make clear to the parents that, even though they are baby teeth and they will fall out eventually anyway, it can still impact the way their adult teeth come in as well as affecting their speech, learning and behavior,” she said. “Because they won’t necessarily be able to say, ‘I have a toothache,’ they just know something is wrong but they don’t know what it is.”

Stolberg also helped FiveCAP write their tooth brushing policy, which states that everyone — students and adults — will brush their teeth within 20 minutes of any meals or snacks. When needed, the children are assisted in the task and a procedure is followed to ensure every tooth is cleaned.

Between the daily brushing and the six-month exams, it is hoped that by kindergarten the FiveCAP Head Start children have developed excellent dental hygiene habits.