IF DR. TANYA DESANTO seems to have a special affinity for kids in need, well, that’s largely because she has spent time in their shoes. “I grew up in a blue-collar Italian neighborhood in Chicago Heights, Illinois,” she says. “My mother was a single mom to my little brother and me. I knew the value of dental care and appreciated public programs, because I was one of those children.”

CHILD’S PLAY: Dr. DeSanto’s daughter Emma in Haiti

Diligent and dedicated, Dr. DeSanto worked her way up to become a biology major at DePaul University, where she participated in a research project studying, on mice, the effects of epilepsy drugs given to pregnant women. “We found that the mice developed cleft lip and pal- ate,” she says. “Studying mice teeth for months opened my eyes to dentistry.”

In 1994, just out of residency during her time at Northwestern University Dental School, she envisioned a role for herself in community dentistry, but that wouldn’t come to pass for nearly a decade. “When I first came to Springfield,” Dr. DeSanto, 49, says, referring to Illinois’s capital city, “I realized quickly that there was not a place for the underprivileged to receive dental care. My first job was with a large dental corporation for eight years. Free care was not an option.

That changed when she landed a seat as the only dentist on the board of HealthFirst Community Clinic, soon becoming its president.

“So many people and programs helped me in my younger years that got me where I am today. I am eternally grateful.”

“When our free clinic outgrew its location and was looking to move, we voted, under my direction, to give our entire endowment as startup money for Springfield’s first community dental clinic” — Central Counties Health Center, which has since grown into a 20,000-square-foot facility employing four dentists and a full complement of assistants and hygienists.

In addition, she augments her work at her own Prairie Dental Group, a cosmetic practice in Springfield, with regular trips to Gonaïves, Haiti, via International American Medical Mission — always accompanied by her oldest daughter, Emma.

Her animating ethos throughout? Sheer boundless gratitude. “So many people and programs helped me in my younger years that got me where I am today,” Dr. DeSanto says. “I am eternally grateful. God gives you gifts to use. We are all in this world together. One cause. One purpose. One goal.”

To help promote dental care in Gonaïves, Haiti, through the group with which Dr. DeSanto works, please visit