We already know that thousands of people in St. Louis and the surrounding areas are living in poverty. When money is tight, all aspects of general healthcare tend to get pushed to the back burner, especially dental care. Give Kids a Smile was founded to combat the growing number of children who are unable to access dental care in the St. Louis communities.
I reached out to their Executive Director, Joan Allen, for more information on how GKAS started, what their goals for the future are, and how the public can get involved and donate. This organization is truly amazing, and the work they're doing is not only saving lives but changing an entire generation's view of themselves. A healthy smile is a huge step towards a healthy self-esteem.
Read on to learn more!
1. Tell me a little about yourself and your role at Give Kids A Smile
Hello—I am Joan Allen, the Executive Director of Give Kids A Smile. After 30 years as a high school business teacher and district vocational coordinator, I retired. I quickly began volunteering my time. One of my first opportunities was at a GKAS free dental clinic. As they were looking for their first employee, I was asked to apply. Now almost 10 years later, I have a new career--in the not-for-profit and dental care areas! Who would have guessed?
I wanted to continue my work with kids. The founders of Give Kids A Smile had just received a “seed grant” to build the infrastructure of this non-profit. They needed someone with business skills who could coordinate the various components of the community outreach and the GKAS organization with its wide variety of volunteers, who worked with at-risk children and their families, who could build an infrastructure for the organization, who understood fundraising and grant writing, and who was willing to work in partnership with local professional and corporate business organizations. I am proud to say that we have accomplished that and more over the 10 years that I have led the organization.
As a wife, mother, and grandmother, I certainly know the value of a person’s health needs, financial limitations, access to care restrictions, and family choices that must be addressed. That has helped me work with families in chaos who are dealing with children who are suffering the pain and ridicule of dental disease. I am proud to say that since the beginning of Give Kids A Smile in 2002, we have given free dental and related services to nearly 30,000 children and oral health education to over 4,700 adults in the St. Louis region, totaling in the amount of over $8 million.
Give Kids A Smile began in St. Louis and is now the national community outreach program for the American Dental Association. Nationwide, this program impacts nearly 1 million children annually. Our free dental clinic for impoverished and under-served children ages 1 through 14 is held in October and February of each year. At our October event, we are the ADA national trainers for the GKAS Leadership Development Institute. Leaders from across the nation are given the opportunity to work and train with the Give Kids A Smile staff and volunteers. I lead that training institute and am proud to say that I still teach—just in a new environment!
2. What are some goals Give Kids A Smile would like to achieve this year?
Of course, we at GKAS want to continue our bi-annual free dental clinics for kids in October and February. The funding for our organization has become a priority to sustain and enhance our ability to expand and improve all services. Therefore, we are addressing new funding sources and volunteer services for our patients.
Tiny Smiles is an area of the clinic that addresses the oral health needs of children under the age of 4 years old. Their needs are very often extensive and expensive to address. We know that if we can get children to a dentist early, educate their caregivers about oral health issues, and address the needs of the families for oral health home supplies—WE CAN CREATE A CAVITY-FREE GENERATION! That continues to be a significant goal. Our need for pediatric dentists and financial support to provide the expensive care needed beyond our clinic continues to be a challenge.
Goal 3 - Education—Education—Education
Reaching deeper into the community to educate parents, caregivers, teachers, and all those who impact children’s oral health through community health fairs, classroom presentations, and at-risk family counseling groups is a major goal. We reach over 4,000 children and adults annually through these programs. Through oral health education and distribution of take-home oral health supplies, we can change a family’s oral health. As we continue to impact a family through oral health issues, Give Kids A Smile hopes to change their overall pattern of health through our nutrition counseling as we partner with St. Louis University Nutrition and Dietetics Department and the National Dairy Council.
Many volunteers help at the clinic to escort children.
3. Why do you feel your mission is important?
As a teacher, I saw what dental pain and ridicule could do to a child’s ability to learn and their self esteem. We have had grandparents call us in desperation because a toddler grandchild could not eat due to the pain of dental disease. This is life-threatening and has to be addressed quickly.
School nurses and medical emergency rooms do not have the means to repair dental issues for children. We can make a huge change in a child’s life by making these restorations, teaching them how to prevent dental disease through proper care so they never have to suffer again! No child can concentrate and learn at school when they are in dental pain. It should never happen.
Then there are the self-esteem issues. Many a child has left our clinic with their parent “crying in delight” because we have repaired broken teeth and given their child a happy smile. No longer would the “bullies” at school make fun of the child’s broken smile. In fact, many of the children will no longer cover their mouths when smiling. They now have a smile that they can be proud to use!
4. How do people find your organization?
Information about our organization is available on our website at www.gkas.org. Social service organizations, churches, schools, and “word of mouth” are the main sources for families to find out about the services we offer. Many of the medical and dental personnel will refer children and their families to GKAS. We are looking for kids who are between the ages of 1 and 14. These children have limited access to dental care and are financially impoverished. School nurses find many of the children through those that come to their offices in pain and through the free/reduced lunch programs at their schools. The free/reduced lunch program helps us determine the family’s financial needs and is the Federal measure of poverty in the U.S. Anyone can call our office at (636) 397-6453 to gain more information.
2014 has already been a very busy year. We continually work to educate the community about oral health and the services offered by Give Kids A Smile. Fundraising activities are our major source of income. Of course, the free dental clinics allow the kids to have access to dental care that they desperately need. However, we make going to the dentist fun! So our clinics are “carnival-like” and the kids remember that “going to the dentist is FUN!”
August 16—North STL City—Love Your Neighborhood given by Service International and Family Church
September 27—“Toothfairy” Pubcrawl in Soulard—GKAS Fundraiser—Everyone over the age of 21 is welcome
October 24 & 25—Located at St. Louis Universty CADE—Free Dental Clinic for Kids—By appointment only—visit our website for more details
November 8—Chesterfield—2nd Annual “Candy Burn” 5K Run/Walk—GKAS Fundraiser—Everyone is welcome
6. What’s the best way for people to get involved?
Find an activity on our website (www.gkas.org) and sign up to volunteer. The clinics require several hundred volunteers and many of them are not dental professionals. At our health fairs, we generally have 10 to 15 volunteers at each event. Of course, there are other events that happen at the last minute, and if you are willing to be placed on a volunteer list, we will call you.
Again, call the GKAS office to get more information. (636-397-6453)
This is so very important that we are able to provide free services to these kids in need. It cannot continue without your support! REMEMBER all donations are tax deductible.
Send a tax deductible check to Give Kids A Smile, 340 Mid Rivers Mall Dr. Suite A, Saint Peters, MO 63376
Visit our secure website at www.gkas.org and make a credit card payment through JUST GIVE
Participate in our fundraising activities and encourage others to do the same
Give A TRIBUTE CARD to someone special for birthdays, anniversaries, retirements, memorials, and so on. Contact the GKAS office and speak to Patti or simply write us a note with your intentions
Call the office and give us your information over the phone
We sincerely appreciate your support.
Dr. Hollander giving a gift of a Build-a-Bear to a Tiny Smiles patient.
8. Anything else you’d like us to know?
I have seen kids' lives change by their visit to our clinic. We have had 25 clinics since 2002. Now some of our patients have grown up and are coming back to us as volunteers! How exciting is it to see kids giving back the joy that they received.
A healthy, happy smile on a child is a new beginning in life!
I want to give a huge thanks to Joan Allen for answering my questions! You can keep up with Give Kids a Smile on Facebook and Twitter!