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Smiles Restored: Donation Covers Dental Care for Women's Home
She wasn't on the streets any more. She'd gotten sober and was on the way to getting her life back together, and she was almost there, almost back on her feet with help from The Women's Home in Houston. But despite her progress, she kept her head down and rarely smiled, partly because she was still sad, but also because she was ashamed of her teeth. Two abusive marriages and years of drug and alcohol abuse had taken a toll. When she spoke, she kept her hand in front of her mouth.
'We learned about this one woman's story, and it led us to the greater need. My heart just ached for her.'
It's both a true story and a typical one, said Paula Paust, executive director of The Women's Home, a nonprofit agency in Houston. "These are women who have struggled with drug abuse and mental health issues, and our program is about getting them back in the work force. If they have teeth missing, the women will look down and not make eye contact, and you're not going to get hired doing that," she says.
That simple truth hit home with Houston philanthropist Evelyn Howell.
As she considered how to help, Howell learned from her son, University of Texas Health Science Center Development Board member Bradley Howell, that the UT Dental Branch offers care at reduced prices. Dental students or residents do the work under the direction of experienced dental faculty.
After a meeting with UTDB Dean Catherine M. Flaitz, D.D.S., and representatives of The Women's Home, Howell decided to donate $10,000 to the Dental Branch to pay for Women's Home residents' dental care. She's now made the donation two years in a row.
Paust said the gift has enabled women to get desperately needed dental care much more quickly than if they had to go through the Harris County Hospital District the only option before Howell's gift.
"It's just been an incredible donation to the women in our program," Paust said. "It amounts to giving them the self-esteem to interview for better jobs. It's also kind of a way to open a new chapter in life. Having teeth missing is still part of that stigma of what you've gone through. People say, ‘Oh, what happened?'"
In one year, Howell's gift provided treatment for 10 different women whose care included X-rays, fillings, crowns, dentures, extractions, fluoride varnishes, whitening and other procedures. Many get their care through UTDB's General Practice Residency (GPR) program.
"It's more than exciting to be able to give someone back her self-esteem without her having to worry about needed resources," said GPR Program Director Raymond K. Simmons, D.D.S. "It sometimes saddens us not to be able to do more, but we definitely appreciate the opportunity. And all of these patients have been highly appreciative."
The gift has enabled Dental Branch students and faculty to see first-hand the joy that comes with a restored smile, but Dean Flaitz said the donation has had other effects, too. "Our students are getting clinical experience while doing the work, but we've all been inspired as witnesses to the way a caring stranger's generosity can change lives," she said.
Howell does not know details about the woman whose story moved her to action, but she does know the woman had extensive dental work and is now about to graduate from The Women's Home. Once lost to her family, the woman who never smiled now has a job, a car and an invitation to live near her mother, brother and sister-in-law. "So she can go back home," Howell said. "She can hold her head up, and she can smile."
By Rhonda Moran, Dental Branch
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