By Jill Reynolds

Today I had the pleasure of meeting a tender-hearted mother and a beautiful daughter who recently graduated valedictorian from her high school class. She told me she wants braces because she’s insecure about the way her teeth look and she hopes they will help to stop her painful headaches. This girl is the youngest of eight children, works part-time at a pharmacy, and showed me an outstanding and impressive report card. An administrator at her school says she, “will excel in whatever she decides to do in life,” and her boss says, “She has been able to overcome personal hardships… but she and her family have reached a point where some of the difficulties of life are about to overwhelm them.” Tragically, she lost her father last fall after an unexpected medical complication. She and her mother are hard workers but barely make more than minimum wage and paying for braces is simply not an option for their family.

Today, I was able to give her some hope. Our Board of Directors chose her to move to the second phase in our selection process for awarding orthodontic scholarships which included an interview and a clinical exam. After taking a quick peek, Dr. Reynolds said she was ready clinically and even offered to put the braces on today because he had time in his schedule.  The tears of joy that fell from her face when I told her the good news was an incredible blessing to my heart and reminded me why we do this. Smile for a Lifetime (S4L) is in the business of making smiles possible—for those who have no other options—and those smiles are truly made to last a lifetime. They are smiles of the heart, a gift to the entire family, including parents who often feel guilty for being unable to provide a solution to a problem of self-confidence and insecurity resulting from an imperfect set of teeth.

I often tell my husband how thankful I am for “the bubble” that we live in. By the grace of God, we have enough food on our table, a warm, safe place to live, and access to medical care, among many other blessings. But that is not the case for everyone and I am often shielded from the need of others because I live inside such a comfortable “bubble.” In my role as the administrative director of our local chapter of Smile for a Lifetime, my view of the world has changed and I am gently reminded that there is a very different life outside my bubble, filled with significant needs. S4L has given me a way to help provide for those in need right here in my community.

Smile for a Lifetime is a national organization with more than 160 chapters in 45 states and five provinces in the United States and Canada. Through a systematic process, we select winners of orthodontic scholarships, allowing orthodontists across the country and in Canada to treat great kids, who really need braces, free of charge. Our chapter’s Board of Directors reviews applications three times each year and we award up to 12 scholarships annually. While the kids are usually very grateful for the award, is is often the parents who feel the greatest relief when we announce our winners. This is a gift that is given to the entire family. Most of our winners’ parents or guardians desperately want to provide orthodontic care for their children, but for various reasons are unable to and they feel tremendous guilt as a result.

It’s an easy gift for us to give to these patients. We schedule their appointments during our slow hours and Ormco donates the brackets to us. With just a little bit of our time and a few supplies, we are able to make a difference. Our community of dentists has really stepped up to fill the need as well. We have had extensive hygiene and restorative services donated to our winners in addition to complicated oral surgeries priced in the thousands of dollars. Multiple patients have received implants as a part of their scholarship, all because of generous dental professionals who wanted to join the Smile for a Lifetime cause. Through this program, I have had the privilege of meeting some remarkable kids and families who live in a very different kind of bubble. I have seen significant transformation in kids who were previously embarrassed, inhibited, and often teased because of their teeth. With the gift of a better smile, they come closer to reaching their true potential through increased confidence in themselves. One winner, who finished her treatment wrote us: “I absolutely love my new smile. Sometimes I still catch myself staring at my teeth in the mirror. Because of the fact that I had braces I can now smile and talk without people pointing out my ‘messed-up’ teeth. I have a new sense of confidence that I never thought I would have.” Her mother thanked us saying, “You are helping these children; you are making them confident; you are helping them to feel good about themselves and in the process, you are teaching them that there is hope, that maybe one day, they can change someone’s life too.”

Recently, we awarded a scholarship to a young girl who is being raised by grandparents. She is one of several whose grandparents have stepped in after parents abandoned them, passed away, or were incarcerated. We have treated recent immigrants from Romania and Vietnam. We provided a scholarship to a lovely single mother who graduated from the foster care system and was struggling to go to school and provide for her daughter (she is now a dental assistant). In her application, she said, “All my life, I’ve struggled with having confidence. Getting braces would bring new meaning to my life. I have so many abnormalities, and was picked on a lot for my teeth, my height, my weight, and my color (I‘m bi-racial). I’ve always hidden my smile…If only people knew my heart.” We have put braces on a number of kids who have not been able to obtain care because others in the family had significant medical conditions and expenses. One recipient is the daughter of a medically discharged veteran. For the most part, these are very grateful kids who come from hard-working families that have met significant struggle along the way. I have been blessed to know them.

Amazingly, our biggest challenge is finding qualified candidates. We are working to find ways to identify those who have no other alternatives for obtaining orthodontic treatment, meet our chapter’s criteria, and want our scholarships. While we expected to have a mountain of applications to review, we seldom have enough qualified candidates to award all 12 annual scholarships. We have come to believe that those who apply are there for a reason. And there’s great joy in being able to provide those smiles that we hope will change their lives and also touch their hearts.

We are often overwhelmed by the myriad of needs in our community. Sometimes the need feels insurmountable and we wonder how we can do anything to make a difference. While one new smile may not change the world, it can certainly change the world for the one receiving it. And that makes it all worth it.