The path to 5.5 million smiles: How one small idea created a national movement
Five and a half million underserved children have received free dental services. More than 137,000 dentist and 420,000 volunteers—including new dentists and dental students—nationwide have given of their time and talents. All of this goodwill is the result of one man’s idea that grew from a basic thought into a well-known and energizing movement, known fondly as Give Kids A Smile (GKAS), for the past 15 years.
Dr. Jeff Dalin is a native of St. Louis and would describe himself as dependable, loyal and hard working. He’s a husband, proud dad to three children, a big hockey fan (Go St. Louis Blues!) and he absolutely loves his day job as a dentist in Creve Coeur, Missouri. He also happens to have founded one of dentistry’s most recognizable and respected charitable programs by pursuing a simple idea with passion and perspective.
Dr. Dalin’s love for dentistry began when he was a little boy working at his father’s dental office in St. Louis. “He loved dentistry a great deal and as we were growing up, he always tried to involve us in his practice,” Dr. Dalin says.
Determined to pursue his dental career, Dr. Dalin finished his undergraduate studies at Emory University in three years and then earned his dental degree at Indiana University School of Dentistry, before immediately returning home to practice with his father in 1980.
Soon after graduating, Dr. Dalin became involved with the Greater St. Louis Dental Society where he later became the editor of their journal.
It was several years later that Dr. Dalin found himself in an ad hoc committee meeting where members were discussing ways of giving back.
“Our first project consisted of a compilation of programs that performed dentistry around the world,” Dr. Dalin says. “I was one of the only members of this committee who had never gone overseas for this purpose. I started asking, ‘Why go overseas to work, when we have people without access to dental care in our own backyard?’”
Later that year, Dr. Dalin volunteered at a back-to-school program that collected everyday items like socks, winter coats and school supplies for kids in need. “When our committee met back up a few months later, I mentioned this program,” Dr. Dalin says. “Why not take care of their dental needs? Give Kids A Smile was born right then.”
The first GKAS event took place in St. Louis in 2002. Two months later, the American Dental Association adopted the program. “To think that it all started here in St. Louis and the ADA immediately adopted it as their national children’s dental access program,” he says. “Talk about chills running down your back.”
Since its inception, GKAS has grown to more than 1,300 annual programs nationwide with more than 420,000 volunteers over the past 15 years, approximately a third of whom are dentists. Numerous sponsors have also generously joined in, such as Henry Schein, Colgate and KaVo Kerr.
“Give Kids A Smile has to be the most memorable thing in my dental life.” Dr. Dalin says.
Today, Dr. Dalin and several colleagues he considers friends come together for a two day clinic, two times a year in St. Louis. Since their inception, over 31 clinics have delivered more than $9 million in dental care to more than 15,000 kids.
“It is great to be around others with the same level of passion and desire to help.” he says.
And there’s one more child who was inspired by Dr. Dalin’s passion and drive. His youngest son, Andy, is following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps. “It is a lot of fun watching him work his way through his first year of dental school,” Dr. Dalin says. “I look forward to watching him work through the remaining three years, and then join me here at my practice!”
Dr. Dalin has advice for anyone who is doubting whether their idea should be pursued and turned into action.
“The Give Kids A Smile program, by its very existence, shows that a simple idea can grow into a national movement. Did I ever think that my phone call to the ADA back in February 2002, would lead to them adopting this program as their national children’s dental access program? Did I ever think that after they adopted the program, it would grow to the size it is? Did I ever think that almost 5.5 million kids would have received dental care of some sort that they would not have been able to get otherwise? It amazes me to think that my idea has had that type of impact.”