From isolated, rural villages to underserved urban communities, there are children living in places all around the world who have limited or no access to dental care. But thanks to Kathryn Pawlak ’13 and HWS Trustee Dr. Deborah Pilla ’76, an effort is underway to change the status quo. Connecting her passion for dentistry and youth outreach, Pawlak teamed up with Pilla, a pediatric dentist and owner of Park View Pediatric Dentistry in Manhattan, to recently establish Planet Smilez, a nonprofit organization that educates children about the importance of oral health and hygiene.
Through their efforts, Planet Smilez seeks to ensure that children in disadvantaged communities across the globe receive educational outreach so that they can better understand how they can take responsibility for their oral health, and in turn, lead healthier lives.
“With the founding of Planet Smilez, we are able to target at-risk youth populations and encourage them to foster healthy lifestyles through simple nutrition and preventative dental care,” says Pawlak, the president and founder of Planet Smilez. “The immense gratitude that children and parents have expressed has been genuinely heartwarming and simply radiated from their smiles.”
Planet Smilez uses interactive, hands-on education and dental-based arts and crafts programs to teach children about proper brushing and flossing techniques, and provides information about how nutrition plays an important role in one’s oral health.
Earlier this year, Pawlak and Pilla took an oral hygiene mission trip to Ojo de Agua, Salcedo, Dominican Republic, where they led a program that taught local children and their families how to properly brush and floss their teeth. To help with the learning process, they used stuffed animals with big smiles to demonstrate best techniques. In addition, they also had an interactive craft session with children to show the differences between healthy and unhealthy foods for oral health. The children were also given “smile bags” that contained tooth brushes, toothpaste, floss, and an oral hygiene related coloring book with crayons. The supplies served as an important supplement to the program, helping to reinforce good practices. Food was also distributed during the program.
“The parents at the end said they would say prayers for us for the rest of our lives after seeing the work we did with their children,” Pawlak says. “It was a lot like that sense of community at HWS. I was really trying to pass along that sense of community to people in need. I can’t even express how rewarding that was.”
Pawlak says Pilla’s mentorship has been paramount, offering her unwavering support, guidance and expertise that has been instrumental for the successful launch of Planet Smilez. For Pilla, the Dominican Republic trip created a special opportunity to advise a recent graduate while working abroad, as well as one in which both mentor and mentee were able to learn together.
“As a mentor, it has been a wonderful experience to see Kathryn’s efforts and watch Planet Smilez develop,” Pilla says. “It was really fun that she was the creative person and that I could guide her on that creativity. It was a give and take experience in creating Planet Smilez together.”
Currently, Pawlak says efforts are underway to return to the Dominican Republic, as well as initiate programs with the Marshallese indigenous population in Hawaii and a Native American community in Western New York. “I’d love for Planet Smilez to continue to grow, expanding its global reach and ability to promote oral health education to those who have limited access to it,” Pawlak says. “Dr. Pilla opened my eyes and brought perspective to this effort. Having the HWS connection between us and knowing that she had a similar experience at the Colleges, really showed me that my dream was attainable.”
Pawlak first recognized the imbalance of access to dental care when she was a child. She says that many of her European family members did not have access to dental care until later in life. Pawlak says that during World War II, her grandfather, Casmir, was placed into a concentration camp where he survived on a glass of water and piece of bread daily. By his early 40s, Pawlak says he needed dentures. She says part of this knowledge served as a driving force for entering the field of dentistry.
Later, as an HWS student, Pawlak decided she would pursue her idea for an oral hygiene outreach program. During her senior year, Pawlak submitted her plans to the HWS IdeaLab, a start-up accelerator program in which students develop their ideas for businesses, services and organizations. Through the IdeaLab, Pawlak was awarded funding that helped to launch the initial phase of her outreach program. Pawlak says that Pilla offered support and guidance throughout.
“It was the alum and student connection that has allowed for such a successful outcome,” Pawlak says. “Based on my experiences, the relationships between students and alums can really create something meaningful.”
In addition to her work with Pawlak, Pilla also mentored Sara Wroblewski ’13, the 2012 winner of the Stu Lieblein ’90 Pitch Contest. Like Planet Smilez, Wroblewski went on to successfully launch her nonprofit, One Bead. Recently, Pawlak shared her experiences launching Planet Smilez with the HWS Board of Trustees, as well as a group of current students during a gathering on campus at the President’s House. A Planet Smilez video about the organization and the outreach shepherded in the Dominican Republic was also unveiled.
“It was an excellent opportunity for Kathryn to return to the Colleges to show what she did with funding from the IdeaLab,” Pilla says. “The video gave the Colleges a sense of what the funding could help to do and what they were able to help a student create.”
As Planet Smilez continues to expand, the organization is offering a 120-hour, half-credit social media internship through the Salisbury Center for Career, Professional and Experiential Education.
For more information about Planet Smilez or to make a donation, visit: http://www.planetsmilez.org/ If you’re interested in offering mentorship or job shadowing opportunities, please visit the Salisbury Center’s Career Network page.