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Adele Della Torre

Founder/Board Chair, Ready Set Smile

En español | When I was 59, I founded Ready Set Smile (RSS), a nonprofit that provides no- or low-cost dental services to children in poverty in 23 schools in Minneapolis. RSS is only six years old, but we have grown from serving 78 children in our first year to expecting at least 1,700 this coming school year.

The problem I’m trying to solve

Even though dental decay is 100 percent preventable with routine care and a healthy lifestyle, it is the most common chronic childhood disease, particularly for kids living in poverty. When left untreated, tooth decay can lead to malnourishment, infection and even death. It affects a child’s quality of life, cognitive and social development, and self-esteem.

Poorer children face many obstacles to receiving dental care, including a lack of insurance and information, fear of pain and language barriers. So we take dental services — exams, cleanings, sealants and techniques to treat decay without needles or drills — right to the schools. Equally important, we educate all children in our schools on oral health.

We also train culturally relevant community health workers (CHWs), who have responsibilities at every level of RSS, from registration and clinical services to teaching. The CHWs are young immigrants who speak Spanish, Hmong and Somali — the languages of (many of)  the students and their parents. It’s thrilling to see how excited they are to have a job that’s real.

The moment that sparked my passion

In the late 1990s, my three children were growing up and needed me less. And I had a new partner in my own dental practice, so I was able to work fewer hours. I was a practicing Catholic but I didn’t feel like I was fully living my faith. A calling grew within me to do the work of social and economic justice in my community. Over the years, I became a community leader on homelessness, affordable housing, gun violence, and racial disparities. People began to tell me, “Adele, you are a dentist. You should turn your organizing and policy skills to social and economic justice in your own profession.”

Advice to others who want to make a difference

A big part of the success of Ready Set Smile is that we take time to become part of the community. I learned the importance of this in my early advocacy work. I would attend events in low-resourced communities, shop there and go to vigils. This built a network with different communities from my own.

Sometimes I’m surprised by how much previous networking has brought to RSS. For example, someone I got to know at Catholic Charities when I was learning how to organize on issues of social justice is now an adviser to the lieutenant governor of Minnesota. He understands that we can mutually help each other. You have to get to know your legislators, your city council members. Don’t be intimidated — they want to hear from you. And I’m proud that my private patients provide over 20 percent of our funding — more networking.

Why my approach is unique

Instead of building another expensive dental clinic, we use simple portable clinics and innovative techniques. Our work is successful because we meet the children where they are — at their schools — with culturally relevant staff, attention to the whole child, and relationship-building with parents and the school community. We improve the experience of a dental visit, we improve oral health, and we do it economically.