Journal Archive > 2001 > September

Richard J. Phelps

Veterinary overseer Richard J. Phelps and Dr. Anthi Tsamtsouris have brought smiles to the children of the Boston Renaissance Charter School.
© Mark Morelli

They bring smiles to children

Richard J. Phelps was only seven months old when his mother died and he was sent to live with his aunt and five cousins in Watertown, Mass. He remembers his aunt as an energetic, bright and resourceful woman who managed to take care of a large family with little money.

So when Phelps and his cousins needed dental care, the aunt would board the children onto a streetcar, and they would make their way to the School of Dental Medicine, where the cost of a cleaning and filling cavities was significantly lower than if the family had gone to a private dentist.

“I was the sixth child, and we all went on to careers. All of us are well educated—West Point, Annapolis, a doctorate in bacteriology,” said Phelps. “My aunt thought two things were important in life: Education and health.”

Phelps continues his aunt’s legacy. The president of Phelps Industries in Quincy, a manufacturer of pet and household products, he is on the board of advisers at the Boston Renaissance Charter School. With 1,254 children and a waiting list of another 1,000, the school serves children from throughout Boston. Most are African American and Hispanic, and the majority live in Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury. When Phelps learned from dental Dean Lonnie H. Norris that many of the children were not receiving proper dental care, he remembered how his aunt managed to cope and thought, “This is payback time.”

An overseer to the School of Veterinary Medicine, Phelps established a fund to pay for the children to have screenings and care from Tufts dentists. The program began last fall, and dentists at Tufts screened 1,042 children. They found that more than 250 children needed immediate care, according to Dr. Anthi Tsamtsouris, director of the clinic and professor of pediatric dentistry.

The difficulties that can result from not taking care of primary teeth can be enormous. When teeth are decayed, children may not eat or sleep well because of pain and discomfort. The child’s physical and psychological health can be affected because of poor nutrition. If the baby teeth have to be removed, Tsamtsouris said, the children may be teased by others. “If a child is made fun of, she may become introverted, isolated and avoid smiling,” she said. “It affects a child’s psychological growth.”

The loss of front teeth is especially damaging because these teeth are necessary for speech. In addition, primary teeth guide the secondary teeth into position.

Tsamtsouris has seen many cases in which primary teeth were so badly decayed they had to be removed under anesthesia. In one recent week Tsamtsouris and her staff removed 42 teeth from three children, though not all from children at the Renaissance School. “Dental disease is 100 percent preventable,” said Tsamtsouris. “The answer to the problem is dental education. I feel if I reached these kids early, I can make parents aware.”

Because the Renaissance School, located on Stuart Street, is near the dental school, it was easy for children to come to the dental school clinic for their appointments. “This was a big gift for them,” Tsamtsouris said of Phelps’ assistance. “Without his help, they would not be able to go to the dentist.

“Children with poor teeth look like a flower in a pot that hasn’t been watered,” she said. “We do surgery and two months later, they’ve bloomed.”