Since its beginnings in 2011, the Smiles for Everyone Foundation has delivered over $25 million in donated dentistry across seven countries. Its chairman talks heartbreak, inspiration and its roll-up-your-sleeves-and-go mentality.

“Pick something and do it.” That’s the advice one
doctor gave Steve Bilt, CEO of Smile Brands, Inc., as the company was preparing to launch its Smiles for Everyone Foundation. “I really took that to heart. Charity is never going to be exactly what you set out to do. If more is meant to be, it will be, and usually is.”

Case in point: the foundation’s first mission trip, a 2011 excursion to an orphanage in Paraguay run by one lone woman serving 200 children. “We were unpacking dental chairs and assembling them, trying to get everything perfect but not getting much closer to doing actual dentistry,” Bilt recalls. “Finally I said, ‘We start treating patients in 15 minutes. If we try to get everything perfect and get bogged down planning patient flow, we’ll just be wasting time.’ ”

He’ll never forget the next day, he says, which really drove home the true meaning of charity’s lifesaving possibilities. “We were walking through the orphanage, and I noticed this crumpled-up soul mostly hidden under a blanket.” The orphanage’s director explained the boy’s name was Ramon, and he was hoping to get treatment but was too ill to leave his bed. “So I went over, said hello and asked Ramon to come out from under the blanket. He had a baseball-sized abscess on his cheek. I told him, ‘I understand you don’t feel well, but you have to come with me right now. We’re going to get you feeling better.’ ” The oral surgeon later reported that had they not treated him, Ramon might not have lived past the next day.

As the trip was winding down, Bilt remembers pulling aside the liaison for the NGO that helped arrange the mission. “What if we leave these chairs and equipment here?” he asked. “Could you run with the ball and turn this into a movable clinic?” The liaison said yes, and today that mobile clinic still exists.

The closest thing to a rule that Bilt espouses is that your charity work should be an outgrowth of your philosophy. “For us, that part was simple. We believe in smiles for everyone, so we realized we really have to live that mission. And when we say every-one, it really has to be everyone, even those who can’t afford it, and even those in countries beyond the communities we serve.”

Today, the Smiles for Everyone Foundation continues to provide free dental services for individuals in need through Community Smile Projects in the United States and Inter-national Smile Projects in Cambodia, Ghana, Laos, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Thailand. Did Bilt necessarily envision that the foundation would get this big, or serve so many countries? Not necessarily, and he says that’s fine: “You don’t have to see the big picture in order to do something good.”

For more information, please visit Elsewhere in this section, read more about Steve Bilt and how the lessons he learned from helming a large DSO can also help IDPs.