PROVO (AP) — While Utah County's youngest elementary students are learning the alphabet and how to read, Sharon Wiest is helping them learn how to take good care of their teeth, too.
Wiest has been organizing assemblies and using marionettes to teach important dental lessons, including brushing twice a day, flossing once a day and visiting the dentist, at schools from Alpine to Cedar Valley each February for the past 25 years.
"The kids love it, and they learn from the puppets," she told the Daily Herald, adding that the message is important. "If you talk to the kids or have a puppet talk to the kids, they're going to listen to the puppet."
This February, in honor of National Children's Dental Health Month, Wiest and her team of dentists' spouses and students have been going to 38 schools and taking their cast of dinosaur marionettes along to tell a story and hopefully turn some good advice into a lifelong habit.
The premise of the presentation is that two dinosaurs, which have great teeth because paleontologists find fossils of them frequently, are teaching their daughter how to care for her teeth.
In between, the dinosaurs — controlled by Weist and other helpers — sing, crack jokes, meet the nemesis Billy the Cavity and learn how and why to care for their teeth.
Gary Wiest, Sharon Wiest's husband and dentist at Eighth North Dental Center, was at one of the recent performances at Franklin Elementary in Provo. He said it's crucial to teach the students good dental health.
"Teeth are the only things that don't regenerate if you lose one to decay, so we need to take care of them," he said.
It can also be very costly for parents to get their children's teeth filled or undergo other dental procedures that can easily be avoided by brushing twice a day, flossing regularly and visiting the dentist twice a year.
"I think it's always good to get in their minds that this is part of your body that you need to take care of because it really does affect them when they get older," Gary Wiest said. "It's not only just their teeth. It's their heart, diabetes. It's just good for overall health."
Sharon Wiest said she first started doing the presentations 25 years ago and was originally interested in starting a puppet theater similar to one in St. Louis, where her husband went to school.
"So we got dental spouses together and decided that, rather than having a theater, it would be better to have a traveling show," she said. "One of my friends made the puppets, one of my friends made the script. They had it recorded and pulled everyone together."
Each year, Wiest begins reaching out to schools to schedule assemblies in September. After finalizing the schedule, she reaches out to a group of dentists' spouses and students to get help with each performance.
This year, 40 dentists' spouses and several dental students volunteered to assist with the 38 different presentations.
"I couldn't do it without these guys," Wiest said. "They're amazing."
Lisa Markham has been helping put on the presentations for 25 years. She said she hopes they are able to help children develop good habits.
"I feel like what they learn here might make what they already are told sink deeper because it's important," Markham said. "They remember what they enjoy."
Sandy Call, who has been helping for 19 years, said she keeps coming back because she knows how important good oral health is.
"Sometimes I feel like if they hear it from someone besides their parents, maybe they will take it to heart," she said.