CHARLESTON - Five years ago, Dick Wittberg and his staff at the Parkersburg-based Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department organized a massive dental operation.
Wittberg, director of a department that serves six West Virginia counties, had become aware of what he calls the "unbelievable need for dental services in West Virginia."
So his staff planned a two-day blitz and recruited area dentists to provide care to all comers.
It didn't work out that way.
About 1,300 people were served, but many more had to be turned away. Wittberg said he was forced to go outdoors and tell people who were ready to wait all night in the rain that the effort was maxed out and they couldn't be served.
Since then Wittberg's department has refined its dental efforts. His staff screens people in need of care and sends them to a couple dozen local dentists who treat them voluntarily in their own offices.
But he and his crew now are mounting another battle against the scourge that affects not only the mouths, but also the general health and employment prospects of so many West Virginians.
Like David swinging at Goliath, Wittberg wants to persuade the U.S. government to let West Virginia pilot a major change in the longstanding federal Food Stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP.
He and his crew want the program to stop allowing recipients to use their benefits to buy soft drinks, which they view as a major contributor to tooth decay. The top offending ingredient is not sugar but citric acid, which breaks down tooth enamel, especially when the beverages are sipped constantly.
Wittberg was among 39 co-chairs for 18 initiatives aimed at fighting child poverty that were the focus of a symposium at the statehouse Sept. 24-25.
The two-day "Our Children, Our Future" symposium was the focal point of a series of community meetings and workshops that have pulled dozens of activists into a grass-roots movement to fight child poverty. The West Virginia Coalition for Healthy Kids and Families, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and more than 30 other organizations have been building support for the movement and the symposium in recent months.
On Sept. 24, about 250 people converged on the Cultural Center for a long day of workshops intended to develop strategies for advancing the initiatives.
With state lawmakers in town for monthly committee meetings, the second day of the Our Children, Our Future symposium moved into the Capitol building.
Members of the House and Senate Joint Committee on Children and Families were briefed on the initiatives, which have been in development over the past several months.
The committee also heard the personal stories of several people who have either overcome poverty or are striving to do so.
An integral part of the highly organized movement is to include such people in the effort. Co-chairs for all 18 initiatives were urged to recruit their participation.
Rick Hodges of Cabin Creek described his struggle as the single parent of an infant daughter after the child's mother left them. He was then 43 and disabled from a fall incurred during his work as a cable TV contractor.
He discovered the Starting Points program at Sharon-Dawes Elementary School and learned much about parenting. He was taught to buy healthy foods for his little girl, to get her to bed on time and to read to her from a tender age.
Now his daughter is 7 years old and "would rather have a piece of fruit than a piece of candy," he said.