Unspoken Smiles: How I’m achieving my dream while helping others
Since dental hygienists are not self-governing and most states in the union still require some form of supervision by dentists, hygienists face many difficulties in providing oral care to patient populations who need it the most. However, enterprising and inspiring hygienists seeking to help others, such as author JP Laurent, prove to us all that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
April 24, 2014
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of articles highlighting the exemplary work done by dental hygienists in the field of public health. Since dental hygienists are not self-governing and most states in the U.S. still require some form of supervision by dentists, hygienists face many difficulties in providing oral care to patient populations who need it the most. However, enterprising and inspiring hygienists seeking to help others, such as author JP Laurent, prove to us all that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
For the past seven years, I’ve made a commitment to dedicate my birthday to special causes close to my heart, but it wasn’t until the devastating earthquake that destroyed my beloved country Haiti in 2010 that I decided to focus in there. My interest in non-profits was drawn from my appreciation of one of my favorite moral philosophers, Jeremy Bentham, who emphasized the principle of utilitarianism, usually defined as maximizing happiness for the greatest number of people and reducing suffering. As a senior dental hygiene student at that time, I had the opportunity to have diverse dental outreach experiences with the NYUCD Global Student Outreach Program, where pediatric care was provided to children in underserved communities. It was from this moment on that I truly found my passion for dental hygiene and helping the less fortunate.
Unspoken Smiles Foundation is a non-profit organization created for the charitable purpose of conducting non-partisan dental hygiene research, education, and informational activities aimed to decrease dental related diseases and increase oral hygiene awareness. It serves to promote fundamental improvements in the overall oral health status of at-risk children in underserved countries around the world. In March 2011, I took an independent trip to Haiti to launch my initial program at a camp in Pétionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, where I distributed dental hygiene kits and education to about 800 children. I was amazed to see those children still had a smile on their face, which is why I decided to name my organization Unspoken Smiles: our theme is “behind every single smile, there is an unspoken story.”
JP Laurent on location in Haiti with Unspoken Smiles (Facebook)
Unspoken Smiles Foundation is focusing on school-based programs, where we will be going to all the schools in Jacmel, 45 minutes from Port-au-Prince. “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” It is with this concept that we decided to target teachers to ensure that they carry on with the program, even if we move to another town. We created a dental curriculum so the teachers will be trained by our dental hygienists. Henry Schein and Give Kids a Smile have provided dental supplies, which we will distribute to schools twice a year. We will also do a general assessment for each school for our research studies, and we will sponsor any children with evident dental decay or oral disease. We will have mainly dental hygienists with at least one supervising dentist or hygiene professor with us. The program may be subject to change as we expand and receive more donations. We chose Haiti mainly because of the situation after the earthquake; it was the perfect time for Haitians to start over and create new future — a future that will match any developed country’s standards.
Securing funding is the most difficult part of this project. I participated in one of the top social venture competitions at Harvard University, where I won a seed-funding grant for the foundation through The Resolution Project. We face two obstacles now: getting the funds to create a website so the donation process can be easier and donors can see the work we are doing, and overcoming a language barrier. Haiti is a nation of French and Creole speakers, so patient education will be tough for the English-speaking hygienists who will be going to Haiti with us. We would need funding to pair them up with translators to ensure that the message we are bringing to those children is understood in their native language.
My ultimate wish for Unspoken Smiles Foundation is to be able to decrease the level of dental-related diseases to less than 1 percent in the underserved countries around the world by 2030. The need is great and we hope to expand and be able to bring more supplies and services, such as restorative care. My greatest hope, however, is to inspire friends, colleagues, and those around me to follow their dreams. I didn’t always feel it was a possibility for me, but through the encouragement of some of my teachers and mentors, my determination to succeed grew. I realized that reaching my goals would mean a lot of hard work, but it is all worth it, when you see the impact you can make on the lives of others.
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Jean Paul (JP) Laurent graduated from New York University College of Dentistry in 2013 with an AAS in dental hygiene. He is currently a dental hygienist for Sean Shekib, DDS, PC, FAGD, and a dental assistant instructor at CUNY in the Heights, based out of Medgar Evers College. He lives in New York City.