This year’s Lucy Hobbs Celebration keynote speaker, Erin Gruwell, has long helped needy students grow through the power of the pen.

IN THE FALL OF 1994, room 203 at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, was where Erin Gruwell—new to teaching—taught freshman English. Her students, written off by many as hopeless, had three things in common: They disliked school. They disliked one another. And they were determined to dislike Gruwell.

Now 48, Gruwell admits she had no plan when she started, other than a vow to see past her students’ low test scores and truly listen to what they had to say. Painstaking application of this philosophy helped her transform the lives of some 150 at-risk teens. Armed with pens and notebooks, Gruwell’s students chronicled, via anonymous journal entries, the adversity they’d experienced growing up in straitened circumstances in a Los Angeles that had exploded in riots just two years earlier.

The Freedom Writers had emerged.

Taking their name from the legendary Freedom Riders of civil-rights fame, the students captured such raw honesty in their musings that a collection of their essays, The Freedom Writers Diary, was published to acclaim (and strong sales) in 1999—one year, Gruwell proudly notes, after all 150 of them had graduated from high school.

Nearly a decade later came a feature film, 2007’s The Freedom Writers, which was translated into a number of languages and shown in theaters, homes and classrooms around the world.

Gruwell will bring her signature blend of inspiration and tough love to her keynote speech at the seventh annual Lucy Hobbs Celebration, a three-day extravaganza in San Francisco this September. Named for the first American woman to earn a dental degree—who did so in 1866 having surmounted innumerable hurdles—the Lucy Hobbs Project is Benco Dental’s year-round initiative to promote the interests of women in dentistry through networking, innovation and philanthropic giving back.

“Our purpose is to turn that pain that young people are facing into a passion that someday they will be liberated and free.”

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the graduation of Gruwell’s first class, which sparked the establishment of the Freedom Writers Foundation, a nonprofit whose members have traveled to every state (and 20 countries) offering scholarships, mentoring and other assistance to needy youngsters—thereby bringing the elevating spirit of room 203 worldwide.

Incarcerated youth are a major priority for Gruwell. Among the Freedom Writers’ most hallowed traditions is a Christmas Eve trip to a juvenile facility to deliver books to kids who might receive nothing else. It is, Gruwell says, her favorite day of the year. “Our purpose is to turn that pain that young people are facing on a holiday,” she adds, “into a passion that someday they will be liberated and free.”

Gruwell’s memories of her own childhood include ones dear to any dentist’s heart: She remembers repeated trips to the orthodontist—braces, headgear and rubber bands always, despite her distaste for them, in place. She didn’t recognize orthodontia’s importance then, she says, but she does now, for one very important reason: “The one thing I hear the most, especially from incarcerated kids, is the power of a smile. It humanizes a room and warms people’s souls,” she says. “I smile all the time.” •

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