Published January 17, 2012
Volume 20, Number 1

Children's Healthy Smile Project: A 21st Century Tooth Fairy  

Karen Milelli distinctly remembers the moment she realized the extent of the gap in dental care for needy children. She was having a conversation with the dental hygienist at an elementary school where she was a volunteer. The hygienist mentioned Jessica, a third-grader whose mouth was full of decay-ridden black teeth.

“The thought that there was a nine-year-old child sitting in school in this country with severe, untreated dental disease was absolutely appalling,” Milelli recalls. “She had to be in pain, her self-esteem was suffering, and it really bothered me.”

Milelli resolved to become a 21st Century tooth fairy. Translating her frustration into action, she created an organization that emphasizes prevention through education and furnishes basic oral hygiene supplies to needy youngsters. “Children need to have what it takes to practice healthy oral hygiene, and that became my mission,” she says.

Her experience as grants chair for the local Assistance League chapter came in handy as she applied for funding from a southern California foundation. Her first request was turned down because she lacked the formal nonprofit certifications, but she kept at it and in 2007 Children's Healthy Smile Project was born. 

The organization’s primary product is the Smile Kit, an assemblage of toothbrush, toothpaste, and Flossers for children, accompanied by instructions and educational materials for parents. The message underscores the importance of dental health, even for babies. The kits are distributed in a variety of settings, from Head Start programs and elementary schools to emergency shelters and general community outreach—anywhere the project can connect with its constituency. “Sometimes these parents have to choose between buying a gallon of milk or a toothbrush for their child,” Milelli relates. The Smile Project eliminates the need to make that choice.

Milelli orders, puts together, and pays for all kit components from her own multifaceted fundraising. Sources include a recent grant from Hacienda Helping Hands and the proceeds from the sale of the fused glass jewelry her husband makes under the name Keys Art Glass. The organization operates on a shoestring, with “one hundred percent of every dollar we make” going back into the kits, she says. The suppliers of the kit materials have turned into loyal supporters, offering her discounts and sometimes picking up the tab for shipping.

The project has become national in scope and includes the involvement of another generation of the family, the Milellis’ son and daughter-in-law in Key West. Almost from the beginning, the organization has been collaborating with the community’s social service agencies, distributing kits and reaching out to parents. Other recipients range from the University of Alabama Dental School to the Huntington, West Virginia, Housing Authority to the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls.

February will be Children’s Dental Health Month, which the organization will observe through several programs in the Tri-Valley and beyond. Roughly 2,500 Smile Kits will be distributed as school nurses go into classrooms to teach about oral health, covering everything from plaque removal to healthful eating.

For more information, visit Childrenssmileproject.org.

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