‘Repairing the world,’ one smile at a time

Save a Smile celebrates more than two decades of supporting children’s oral health

Comprehensive: Two dental hygiene students play with a Save a Smile patient at Tarrant County College Hygiene School, where the hygiene students provide all the preventive services for Save a Smile children at no cost to their families.. The school provides time for a dental exam by a volunteer dentist, teeth cleaning, fluoride, radiographs, oral hygiene instructions and sealants by the hygiene students.

Retired pediatric dentist Bruce Weiner, D.D.S., was brought up with the value that in Hebrew is known as Tikkun olam. 

“Tikkun olam really means repairing the world,” he said. “But we can’t do it all at once. We have to do it a little bit at a time.”

For Dr. Weiner, that meant being instrumental in helping start Save a Smile and being a supportive volunteer of the Fort Worth, Texas-based program until the day he retired.

Led by Cook Children’s Health Care System, Save a Smile is celebrating its 21st anniversary of “helping kids smile and being the healthiest they can be,” said program founder Tonya K. Fuqua, D.D.S., director of children’s oral health at Fort Worth’s Cook Children's Center for Community Health.

The program was inspired by the ADA Foundation’s national Give Kids A Smile program, which celebrates its 22ndanniversary this year. More than 7 million underserved children have received free oral health services through the GKAS program. One of the main objectives is to provide care and find dental homes for as many underserved children as possible.

“We truly did create Save a Smile after our first year of doing Give Kids A Smile, when a main board member for our hospital thought it was a good idea to start something year-round,” Dr. Fuqua said.

Since the program’s inception, Save a Smile has coordinated dental care for the community’s most underserved children, utilizing a social service component to make it all happen. The program works to increase access to dental care by engaging a large network of volunteer dental providers and enlisting the assistance of many community organizations.

Save a Smile started with just five elementary schools in one school district targeting children from pre-kindergarten throughthird grade.

The program serves 21 elementary schools in three school districts in the Fort Worth area, impacting all students in those schools, which range from preschool to sixth graders.

The program has included 107 volunteer dentists over the years, of which around 80 provide care in their private practices and offer comprehensive services completely free of charge to the families. Over the past 20 years, volunteers have screened over 125,300 children, and treated nearly 5,800. They’ve performed over 76,200 dental procedures.

To date, the program has orchestrated more than $11.4 million in donated dental services.

Save a Smile goes a step beyond and provides social services to support completion of dental treatment. Community health workers reach out to families to communicate screening results, assess resources and determine the family’s needs for translation, transportation and social services. A licensed social worker oversees the community health workers.

Community health workers assist with obtaining all basic necessities to allow dentistry to become a priority, keeping children healthy and in school, ready to learn and grow, Dr. Fuqua said.

“The program helps move families out of crisis while providing them the tools they need to obtain stability,” she added.

Dr. Fuqua is optimistic about the future and willing to help other locales across the country establish their own home-grown programs.

"The ultimate goal is to expand this all around Texas and beyond,” she said. “This is such a replicable model and can be done in any area, large or small, and at a variety of levels tailored for the area and capacity. We would love to share our success, lessons learned and everything that we have developed for others to take the idea and run with it.”

 We can’t just keep drilling and filling because that alone is not making the bigger difference,” Dr. Fuqua said. “If we don’t figure out better ways to change behaviors, educate and inform people and to start early before a child is ever born, then we are always going to be chasing our tails.”

Save a Smile volunteers include Dakota Cooper, D.D.S., and Lauren Drennan, D.D.S, sisters who followed in the footsteps of their father Paul Davis, D.D.S. Dr. Davis was president of the Fort Worth District Dental Society when Save a Smile was just trying to get going, and he saw the importance of the program. 

“It’s the volunteer dentists that are the heart of the program and we are doing a lot of good in the community,” he said. “It’s fun for me to talk to these patients and help them with these services.  Your oral health has an effect on your overall health, so if they come to me and are afraid of other doctors, maybe I can help them to not be.”

Dr. Davis added, “Seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces and seeing how happy the parents are, knowing their children don’t have to suffer anymore, I don’t have to question if Save a Smile is important.”

Dr. Drennan echoed her father.

“We tell them everything will be OK, and when it’s done, to see those kids — it’s just awesome.”

To learn more about Save a Smile, visit

To learn more about the ADA Foundation’s Give Kids A Smile program, visit

Recommended Content


© 2023 American Dental Association