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Jeff Dalin knows the power of a smile.

As a St. Louis dentist and graduate of the IU School of Dentistry (DDS '80), he sees it every day — indeed, his daily goal is to enhance that power.

But nearly a decade ago, he realized that the impact of a smile was lost on many youngsters whose families were unable to provide proper dental checkups and treatment. Dalin and fellow dentist B. Ray Storm came up with the notion of a one-day clinic offering free dental care to families in need, and called it Give Kids a Smile (GKAS).

“Smiling is infectious, you catch it like the flu. When someone smiled at me today, I started smiling too.”
— Poet Karen McLendon-Laumann

Little did they know what they had started. In the past eight years, the GKAS program has provided the equivalent of $2.7 million in dental care to nearly 8,000 boys and girls in Dalin's home state of Missouri. More than that, the program has spread like that “infectious smile,” traveling across the nation and around the world. Just one year after Dalin and Storm's idea was born, the American Dental Association incorporated it into National Children's Dental Access Day. Small wonder that Lawrence Goldblatt, dean of the IUPUI-based dental school, called the program “one of the most visible and positive faces of American dentistry” last spring when introducing Dalin as the school's 2009 commencement speaker.

A passion for caring

The growth of Give Kids a Smile requires a lot of Dalin's time and energy, but also has made one of his greatest passions a tremendous success story.

“It gives me chills to think that millions of children have received care they normally would never have had,” Dalin says. “They will be able to eat and sleep better, have better self-esteem, do better at school and not be in pain any longer.”

Dentists across the nation have made Give Kids a Smile a powerful tool to improving the lives of less fortunate children.

The program offers a lot of firsts: first dental visit, first toothbrush, even the first toothpaste so kids won't have to share with brothers or sisters. And “we are teaching them information about dental care they will be able to use for a lifetime,” Dalin adds.

While Dalin is thrilled with the growth of GKAS, he isn't surprised.

“Dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants get very involved with our patients,” he explains. “You feel this commitment to serve others, a connection with your patients.”

It isn't just dental professionals, either. GKAS is a collaboration of lay people, school nurses and charitable organizations, corporate partners and many more, all working toward one dream: for kids to realize their potential.

GKAS has come a long way since 2002, when Dalin and Storm launched the program in a borrowed dental office slated for demolition. It now includes facilities such as the St. Louis University Center for Advanced Dental Education, where 60 chairs are available for that city's two-day clinics.

“ It gives me chills to think that millions of children have received care they normally would never have had.”
— Jeff Dalin

The program has built spin-offs, too. Tiny Smiles was born when GKAS dentists noticed that the 5- and 6-year-olds they were seeing already had major problems; the spin-off treats children from infancy to age 5. And when follow-up care became an issue, St. Louis launched the Smile Factory, where dentists could donate free care to complete work either started or identified in GKAS clinics.

Other benefits

Besides quality dental care for disadvantaged kids, GKAS has other benefits, too. It builds relationships between dental professionals and ties between dental practices and the business community. And it promotes volunteerism and community involvement, while building awareness of the impact good oral health has on a child's development.

But all that pales in comparison to the effect a GKAS visit can have on a child. To Dalin, one story captures the essence of the program.

“There was a middle-school age girl who was always getting in trouble at school,” Dalin says. “She was disheveled in appearance, not doing well in school, always in the principal's office, and so on. She was brought to one of our clinics, ended up having a root canal done, an extraction and some restorative work.

“She came to school the next week all cleaned up, with a much happier disposition,” he adds. “She started doing better at her school work and no longer was getting into fights with classmates. It seems she had been in constant pain and nothing was being done for it. Once we took care of these problems, things improved for her in every aspect of her life.”

Jeff Dalin enjoys working with children who ordinarily don't have access to oral health care.

Good advice pays off

The St. Louis native comes by his love of dentistry naturally — he's following a family tradition. His father was a dentist who counseled his son to choose IU's dental school. Dalin followed his father's advice, and has never looked back.

“After all, many of the giants in the field of dentistry were teaching at this school,” Dalin recalls. The training was demanding, but the school “prepared me to be an outstanding practitioner.” Through the years, seeing fellow dentists trained by other schools has reinforced his belief that the IUPUI-based school was a vital step in his personal development.

“I loved the IUPUI campus,” Dalin recalls. “It was mostly a medical center campus at that time, and a very impressive one at that. To this day, I still tell everyone that IUSD is the best dental school in the country. My father was right on with his recommendation.”

He found Indianapolis “a great city to live in and very easy to enjoy. After all, I am from a similar midwestern city. My four years there flew by!”

Like many alumni, he's amazed by the changes he sees.

“Both the city and IUPUI have gone through so many changes, and all have been great,” Dalin says. “IUPUI is more diverse now, not strictly a medical center.”

You can almost hear the smiles of a former student and Indy resident when he says “we did not have so many outstanding restaurants and entertainment choices back when I was living there. The city is a great place to visit. I wish I had more time to get back there more often.”

Dalin stays in touch with fellow members of the class of '80 as much as time allows, and pitches in at alumni events whenever he can. Being asked to deliver last spring's commencement address was something he considers “one of the highlights of my career.”

Family life

His work keeps him on the go and doesn't leave “a lot of extra free time,” he admits. But Dalin and his family enjoy traveling. He is a fan of St. Louis-area sports teams, and likes working with computers, plus “whatever else I can manage to squeeze in.”

He and his wife Debbie have a daughter graduating from the University of Illinois, a son in his freshman year at Bradley University, and a high school sophomore son “who seems to show an interest in dentistry” and — who knows? — might even follow the family tradition to IUSD.

It may be nearly three decades since he completed his degree work at the school, but his enthusiasm hasn't waned.

“I love dentistry, and along with a great private practice, I've found many different ways to express this passion,” he says. One of his great joys is writing about the field, in magazines and dentistry-related Web sites. For Dalin, enjoying his work mandates sharing that love. “If I can get others to enjoy dentistry as much as I do, then I feel I am doing something important for the profession.”