Global Health Nexus, Summer 2001

 Practicing for Life™: Transforming Smiles and Lifes

By Dr. Donna J. Rumberger, 
Class of 1980

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
—Margaret Mead

Discouraged, unemployed, and dependent on welfare, a young woman watching NY 1 News one morning saw a feature story about the Smiles for Success™ program of the American Association of Women Dentists. Inspired by what she saw, the woman, who had always felt self-conscious about her unattractive, unhealthy looking smile, dialed the phone number on the screen. Months later, with a new, healthy-looking, pretty smile, she found the job she had always dreamed of and is now a full-time employee who looks forward to going to work each morning. “Smiles for Success,”™ she says, “is responsible for my current success and happiness.”

Such wonderful success stories are typical of the program which Dr. Judith McFadden and I founded in 1996 over coffee at an outdoor café in New York City. Smiles for Success™ provides free dental care to women receiving public assistance who are motivated and determined to leave welfare, join the workforce, and achieve financial independence. Most are single parents in their thirties and forties. The program works in partnership with accredited job readiness and placement services and an agency which provides free, appropriate business attire for job interviews, as well as regularly scheduled support group sessions, continued workshop training, and follow-up self-help programs for a minimum of one year.

The cluster of programs of which Smiles for Success™ is a part offers critical services that are neglected by most social service agencies. No matter how motivated and qualified a job candidate may be, the job search will usually be unsuccessful if the candidate lacks appropriate clothing and faces her job interview with broken down, missing, or decayed front teeth. Indeed, for women who are trying to leave the welfare rolls, these last few hurdles can appear insurmountable. 

Initially, the women tend to be apprehensive about visiting a dentist, citing numerous fears and anxieties. To allay fears, build trust, and encourage participants to make and keep their dental appointments, workshops are presented on the importance of good oral home care. Subsequently, the women are treated in a participating dentist’s private office.

Once they begin treatment, most women report being impressed by the caring and compassion shown by 
the dentist and office staff. Upon completion of treatment they undertake their job searches with greater self-confidence, determination, and optimism than ever before. Many enroll in college-level classes. To women who feel uneasy about accepting free dental care, we say, “I volunteered to help you.”

One of the most gratifying aspects of this program is witnessing the impact that a woman with a newly attractive, healthy-looking smile makes on those around her. For example, when a mother carries herself with assurance and pride in her appearance and ability to support her family, she becomes a role model for her children. Helping those who are determined to help themselves and watching as the welfare-family chain is broken reaffirms the importance of volunteerism for me personally and for all the members of the American Association of Women Dentists who participate in the Smiles for Success™ program. 

We firmly believe that the disadvantaged among us are society’s greatest untapped resource, and we consider it a privilege to be able to donate our professional skills to assist those who are seeking permanent employment and improved economic prospects. We commend other dentists who are “practicing for life”™ in other ways, such as volunteering their services to assist children, the handicapped, and the elderly who are often homebound. And we agree wholeheartedly with Margaret Mead, who said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”