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Elina Katsman, founder of Smiles Foundation.Olga Seovic/Handout

The organizer: Elina Katsman

The pitch: Creating the Smiles Foundation

The cause: To improve dental health and fitness

When Elina Katsman travelled to the Dominican Republic in 1984 for a short holiday she had no idea the trip would change her life.

Ms. Katsman was working as a dental assistant in Toronto at the time and she was shocked at the bad teeth she saw almost everywhere in the country. “What really surprised me were the friendly, amazing, beautiful Dominican kids that were shining shoes, and every time they smiled you could obviously see that their teeth had a lot of cavities and often they were missing permanent teeth,” she recalled.

She vowed to return to the Dominican Republic one day to help the children she’d met.

When she got back to Toronto, Ms. Katsman enrolled in a dental hygiene program and graduated with top honours. She immediately landed a string of jobs but she was determined to fulfill her promise. After about a year of working she sold her possessions and headed to the Dominican Republic for what she thought would be a year-long stint.

At first she visited schools and churches with a couple of local nurses to teach families about dental care. She eventually opened a dental clinic and stocked it with donated equipment. That led to the creation of the Smiles Foundation, a Canadian-based charity that today operates 10 clinics in the Dominican Republic as well as five mobile clinics. Children are treated for free and adults pay about half the going rate. The foundation relies on about $1-million worth of donated supplies every year and it employs about 100 Dominicans.

Ms. Katsman spent 15 years in the country and now lives in Toronto. She continues to lead the foundation and she’s created a separate program in Canada called Smiles in Action, which promotes active living.

She still can’t believe that a holiday trip more than 30 years ago set her on such an extraordinary path. “I really feel humbly blessed and privileged to be able to have had that spark that ignited this and attracted all these amazing people who believed in my mission and believed in this desire to do something.”