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Elina Katsman, second from left, created the Smiles Foundation to provide dental care to children in need.
Elina Katsman, second from left, created the Smiles Foundation to provide dental care to children in need.

giving back

Creating healthy smiles for the poor in Dominican Republic Add to ...

The Donor: Elina Katsman

The Gift: Smiles Foundation

The Cause: Providing dental care to poor families in Dominican Republic

Back in 1984 when Elina Katsman was 20 years old she took a trip to Dominican Republic and travelled around on holiday. She was touched by many of the people that she met, particularly the poor children in the streets, who sold candy, cleaned shoes and seemed to always have a smile. But she couldn’t help but notice that whenever they smiled she could see missing teeth and gum disease.

Ms. Katsman was a dental assistant at the time and about to embark on studies to become a dental hygienist. She vowed to return and do something to help these children. She returned to Toronto, became a dental hygienist and worked for a year to pay off student loans. Then she decided it was time to go back to Dominican Republic.

She spent a year at first, training nurses and visiting schools, churches and community centres to offer dental care. Then she returned to Toronto, rounded up donations of equipment from dentists and doctors and shipped it back to Dominican. She kept that up for several years, with the help of her husband Felix Jimenez, and eventually opened a clinic in 1990. That led to the creation of the Smiles Foundation, a Canadian charity.

The idea was simple. Children would be treated for free and adults would pay a fraction of the cost of a local dentist. That arrangement wasn’t always welcomed by local doctors and there were challenges at first. “We tried not to step on any toes,” Ms. Katsman recalled from her home in Toronto. But she got round the concerns and the clinic thrived.

Today the Smiles Foundation runs 10 permanent clinics in the country and operates mobile ones. Each clinic offers full dental services, from cleaning and fluoride application to crowns, bridges and root canals. The charity employs roughly 200 people, with costs covered by dental fees and donations, and it runs a health-care education program for children. So far roughly three million patients have been treated.

“I can’t imagine myself without this,” said Ms. Katsman, who travels to Dominican three or four times a year and teaches dental hygiene in Toronto. “I love what I do. And we are definitely making a difference.”

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