How a dental hygienist started her own non-profit organization

April 23, 2016

When I became a hygienist and started working in private practice, I was always taking every opportunity to do community outreach. This turned into a desire to start a non-profit organization.

Editor's Note from Kara Vavrosky, RDH ... For many of us, we chose dental hygiene as our career because we have a quirky fascination with teeth, love the preventive focus of dental hygiene, and have a desire to aid in the health of our patients. But have you ever wanted to expand your desire to help others in the public health realm, or even start a non-profit organization?

Now some of you are thinking, “Well sure, but I could never pull that off.” Before you think this isn’t a possibility, check out how Katie Melko, RDH, BS, started her own non-profit organization and made a significant difference in her community. You can also see why the word IMPACT means so much to her.

Introduction:

When I was in hygiene school, I fell in love with community outreach and providing services in community locations. This was one the areas of dental hygiene I loved the most and my passion for it grew constantly. Every opportunity that came my way, I participated in and, as I began my career, community outreach was one of my first temping assignments I received; it was to work for a mobile dental van that traveled across Connecticut to various schools and daycares to provide preventive treatment to children. As I treated children at my first private practice job, I constantly saw the need for education and access to care. These patients are what motivated me to help make change in children’s lives in Connecticut.

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Abstract:

Miles For Smiles, INC. (MFS) is a nonprofit organization that was started in 2011. By developing this entity, it allowed me to provide progress, initiate change and develop a way to reach the community. Fundraising and holding events enabled MFS to fund dental services and provide access to care for these children. The methodology used to create a nonprofit was to go through proper channels to get the nonprofit recognized with the IRS and state government and also to create a board of directors, sponsors, and tax identification number. The findings indicate that access to care is a major issue in Connecticut for uninsured and underprivileged population. The population served was primarily Hispanic and African-American children from the ages of 3-18 in rural areas, which were living below poverty. “Children from families without dental insurance are 3 times more likely to have dental needs than children with either public or private insurance.” (1)The results were impactful for such a small run organization and a dental hygiene professional can replicate this type of outreach to help advocate for the people in the communities who need our help.

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Dental homes are a key aspect to getting regular preventive care, and education and perseverance will help achieve this goal. The discussion will include feedback from families and how we determined who qualified for the services. MFS was able to make many connections and build collaborative work environments with other professionals in medical and dental settings. This helped achieve goals set by the board.

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Statement of Purpose:

“More than 51 million school hours are lost each year to dental related illnesses.” (1) The goal was to be able to raise awareness about the most chronic disease in children, early childhood caries (ECC). “Dental caries is the single most common chronic childhood disease and is five times more common than asthma.”(1) “Over 50% of 5-9 year old children have at least one cavity or filling and that proportion increase to 78% among 17 year olds.” (1) The purpose was to educate the children on oral hygiene instruction (OHI) and to raise awareness of this issue to the public eye. Holding fundraising events allowed provisions for dental services and access to care for children.

Objectives:

•      To raise awareness to the community about childhood dental caries.

•      To advocate for a dental home and getting preventive care regularly.

•      To educate children and families about the importance of good oral hygiene and smart nutritional choices.

Methodology:           

•      Obtain a Tax Identification number with the state

•      Register the nonprofit name with the Secretary of the state

•      Apply for 501-C tax exempt nonprofit ID with IRS

•      Build board of directors

•      Research sponsors

•      Set goals/objectives for nonprofit

•      Advertise using flyers, newspapers, social media and radio

•      Create a website

•      Network at community outreach events

•      Develop fundraising events

•      Apply for grants

Results:

The mission statement for the organization is: Miles For Smiles, INC. is a non-profit organization that works toward eliminating active disease in children, by offering healthy opportunities, education and vital treatments, which will give each child a chance to prosper. Our belief, that a child’s life is precious and deserves his/her best chance to become an active member of the community, has been a cornerstone in creating Miles For Smiles, INC. Not only do we hope to fight the ever-present difficulties which surround uninsured and underprivileged children, we also pride ourselves on the education that will be provided to each candidate, so they may better understand how to move forward with a healthy lifestyle. MFS made contributions to the community from 2011-2015; the list below reflects what MFS accomplished excluding date from 2012, which was not accessible. Although in the grand scheme of things this may seem small, it is a huge accomplishment making a difference for families. MFS is completely overwhelmed with the generosity of the people, who are willing to give back to the less fortunate. MFS also applied for grants, but didn’t receive the grants because of how small of an entity we were.

•      Treatment: 103 persons

•      Outreach: 5,000 persons

•      Books: 800 pieces

•      Gifts: 50 (clothes, toys, personal) items

•      Donations: $1,000.00 (outside of treatment donations)

•      Education: over 3,000 students

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Discussion:

When I became a hygienist and started working in private practice, I was always taking every opportunity to do community outreach. I decided to ask the dentist I was working for at the time if I could start an educational program for children, going into the schools and talking about oral health and nutrition. The dentist kindly sponsored me to do this for about eight months, then I decided to have a 5k fundraiser to raise money for an oral health foundation. This turned into joining the Waterbury Chamber of Commerce and attending social networking events to promote the cause and people asked me what this would do for Connecticut’s children. After thinking about this, I started my own non-profit organization called Miles For Smiles, INC. (MFS) to raise money to help children in CT receive free dental care and educational opportunities.

The purpose of MFS, INC. was for me to be able to go out in the community and help make a difference, raise awareness, and provide a resource for families to depend on. Each year, MFS expanded to make the nonprofit more impactful on the community. When starting out, the board of directors decided to contact other nonprofit organizations that had similar goals in treating low poverty, underprivileged children or families. In reaching out to nonprofit organizations, MFS used their resources to insure the families were actually in need of help. The organization worked with multiple places to have the opportunity to spread the word regarding the services offered and to reach multiple communities, impacting Connecticut.  This allowed the organization to work with other dental professionals and build connections.

MFS collected books for community health centers “Reach Out and Read program”, “Toys for Tots”, Christmas wishing tree, winter attire to children during the holiday season, and volunteers at local events. The collaborations built, allowed MFS to provide free service days for the community, pay dental bills for families, and attend events to provide free dental and oral cancer screenings. Annual fundraising events made this possible which included; 5k’s, charity dinners, and Ladies Night Out events to raise funding for dental treatment received by children. 

In 2011, the first year, MFS was able to donate $2000.00 to a dental program at a community health center. This provided seventy-five children with restorative treatment in the Waterbury school system and MFS donated one hundred dental gift bags for the less fortunate children during the holiday season. At the first charity dinner, MFS collected 150 books for the Reach Out and Read program. The charity dinner was a kickoff event for the organization and to help the organization get the word out about the 5k event. MFS went to fairs and community events to advocate and raise awareness by handing out flyers and educating people. The volunteers used America’s Tooth Fairy educational kit to help aid the educational presentation along with other tools; like stuffed animals, books and toys. The volunteers went to four schools in Middletown, Connecticut to the talk about oral health and nutrition tips to the students. MFS was the oral health educator for three years at a daycare. MFS gave over 700 good bags and did OHI education in Watertown, Southbury, and Naugatuck elementary schools.

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In 2012, MFS strived to make more of an impact and to really be able to reach out to the community. The organization decided to participate in CT Health and Wellness Event in Hartford, CT. At this event, MFS spread the word about the services offered, educated the children, raised awareness about childhood dental caries, and provided oral cancer and regular dental screenings. The event was such a success, MFS received numerous donations, provided 60 oral cancer screenings and educated over a 100 families about nutrition and oral health. The organization donated to Oral Cancer Foundation; also gave away 1000 goody bags and made some everlasting connections with other companies. MFS partnered with a dental office in CT, which opened their doors one Sunday a month to provide free dental care; this was a huge opportunity for us and for the community. The free service days provided preventive and restorative care to so many people in the community, this carried on for about 6 months and then the doctor stopped doing it because his business got busy. The organization was not able to obtain the total number of patients treated at these events unfortunately. MFS donated 200 books to Reach Out and Read program and gave two children new winter attire, participated in Toys for Tots, and one child's Christmas wish from a giving tree. The volunteers returned to Watertown Elementary School system to provide oral hygiene instruction and to demonstrate with the dental puppet friends, which the children love!

In 2013, MFS collaborated with a community health center to start a restorative program for underprivileged children, to get the more extensive work for free. We donated $2,500.00; this provided restorative care for 25 children. These children have no insurance and families are struggling to make ends meet, the children were seen in school at the mobile dental clinic and are a high caries risk, with multiple areas of decay.  The program was developed to be able to treat the child, to offer nutritional and oral health education, and create a dental home for these families. The hope is that the families will continue to come back for treatment and regular checkups to help reduce the amount of decay in the future. Education is the cornerstone to any healthy life change, and hope that by providing this option for these families, it will help them for the rest of their lives. MFS gave out 250 oral health bags and provide oral health education for children in CT school system, donated 324 books to Reach Out and Read Program and provided seven kids with winter attire. The organization’s volunteers attended multiple community outreach events and provided literature and education to the families as well.

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In 2014, MFS continued to reach out to the community to provide oral health education to children and raise awareness for childhood dental caries disease. MFS went to many schools and community health events to do this. The organization reached out to many boy and Girl Scout troops throughout the state and partnered with America’s Tooth fairy Program to help educate scouts about oral health care and dental profession. MFS helped Boy Scout troops get the Merit Badge in Dentistry and also American’s Tooth Fairy Program Super Hero Patch. All the oral health care products the troops raised were donated to children and families at homeless shelters and soup kitchens in the area. Another project MFS worked on was at the annual Ladies Night Out event, where a collection of empty soda cans and bottles were obtained; that money was utilized to buy school items, clothing and toys for the holiday season for under-privileged children in the area. The 200 collected books at our charity dinner was donated to Reach Out and Read program.

In 2015, MFS made the decision to close its doors. It was a very difficult decision to make and one that I personally struggled with making. I ran this nonprofit practically alone, with the help of my loving friends and family. It was very difficult to get people to want to donate their time to our cause. As a professional, I made the choice to concentrate on different aspects of my career and to leave this behind me, it was becoming too much for me and my family and I couldn’t ask them to continue to do it anymore. We made a great impact on so many children’s lives, I hope that we helped decrease fear of the dental office, and increase motivation to brush and floss their teeth. The efforts brought joy to the families we helped, and truly made a difference in people’s lives. When closing the nonprofit, MFS donated $1000.00 to the following organizations; Connecticut Oral Health Initiative, St. Jude, America’s Tooth Fairy, ADHA Institute of Oral Health, and Smile Train, so that they can continue to help make a difference. Personally, I still volunteer, providing services and education; I strive to make an impact on children’s lives and I will never loose site of how important that is.

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This is one of my biggest accomplishments and I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to experience this adventure. Being able to go into a classroom and talk about dental hygiene was one of my most enjoyable memories, to see children so excited to have us visit, tell their tooth stories and year after year get better with their brushing and flossing was incredible. Progress is amazing to see unfold, especially in children who don’t have a lot. They are always happy, appreciative and exceptionally smart. It is sad when I see and hear that children share a toothbrush or don’t have a toothbrush or toothpaste and floss at home. Or that a child says that his/her parents can’t afford these items, so they go with out and don’t know what it is. Those reasons alone are why I think I’m so passionate about Public Health and wanting to help make a difference, if one child remembers and pays it forward. I will truly be blessed.

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Conclusion:

The underprivileged children that were treated in this project, truly needed the services, were extremely appreciative, and families just didn’t know better or couldn’t afford to get the treatment done. Many families came from other countries and in their cultures, primary teeth weren’t important to care for; parents’ would say, “They are just going to fall out anyways, what’s the big deal?” Being able to educate them on why it’s so important was eye opening for both parties and something I will always remember.

Miles For Smiles, INC. worked hard to be able to give back to a community that was less fortunate. Over the four years, we were able to positively impact many lives, whether it was smile, a conversation, treatment or a gift. The effort that went into making this nonprofit successful was tremendous and selfless. The need is there, the access to care gap that is currently affecting the whole world is unfortunate, and I will continue as a professional and as a personal interest, to help close this gap to the best of my ability. That was the true purpose of this nonprofit, to make a difference that was positive and impactful. Fear maybe a powerful thing, but strength and determination is too. MFS didn’t just change other people’s lives, it changed me; I grew personally and professional during this process and I wouldn’t change it. This experience also gave me the opportunity to meet amazing people and step out of my comfort zone, another thing, I might not have ever done.  Never give up on your dreams, write it down and make it a reality, you will be surprised at what one can accomplish that way.

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References:

1. Department of Health and Human Services (US) Oral health in America: a report of the Surgeon General. Rockville (MD): HHS, Office of the Surgeon General (US); 2000. [Cited 2015 December 10].