Celebrating 15 Years of Saving Smiles: Dr. Cherilyn Sheets

In the 15 years since our founding, many strides have been made to improve the oral health of our nation's youth. In the first installment of this video interview series, our Executive Director, Jill Malmgren sits down with our Founder, Dr. Cherilyn Sheets, to talk about our beginning and what's ahead for America's ToothFairy and children's oral health.

Dr. Cherilyn Sheets is an educator, clinician, author, and lecturer, both nationally and internationally. She is co-executive director of the Newport Coast Oral Facial Institute, an international nonprofit teaching and research facility. She is also a clinical professor of restorative dentistry at the USC School of Dentistry and is on their board of counselors. Dr. Sheets is a past president of the American Academy of Esthetic Dentistry and the American Association of Women Dentists. She is also a fellow in the Academy of General Dentistry, American College of Dentists, International College of Dentists, Academy of Dentistry International, and the Pierre Fauchard Academy of Dentistry. She received the 2002 Gordon Christensen Award for Excellence in Lecturing, the 2004 USC School of Dentistry Alumnus of the Year Award and the 2006 Section of Honor Award, and is a distinguished dentist award from the California Section of the Pierre Fauchard International Honor Dental Academy.

Dr. Sheets is co-principal of a research project on dental implants and cracked teeth with Dr. James C. Earthman at the UCI School of Engineering. And she has authored over 100 articles and has co-authored numerous textbook chapters. Dr. Sheets serves on numerous editorial boards of peer-reviewed journals, and she is also the founder and chairman emeritus of The Children's Dental Center in Inglewood, California, which is a nonprofit prototype dental center for providing multidisciplinary care to children of the working poor. She is also the founding chairman of the board of our organization, America's ToothFairy: National Children's Oral Health Foundation.

Jill Malmgren:

We are so delighted to have her here today to talk with us a little bit about her experience and insights into the nonprofit world and need for provision of care for underserved children. So, let's get started. Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Sheets.

Dr. Sheets:
Oh, it's a pleasure to be here with you, even if it's virtual.

That's right. Well, we have a few questions here for you today. Our first one was, was there a singular moment that made you decide to start a dental charity? Or was it more of a combination of events?

Dr. Sheets:
Oh boy, that's a good question. Actually, I think it was both. So, let me explain that, because it sounds like it's a combination. But the singular event that probably made this happen was the fact that my father had had a massive stroke. So, he was no longer in the family dental practice overnight that we all shared. So, I was covering that office as well as my Newport Beach office. So, I was in Inglewood part of the time and in Newport Beach part of the time. And that was an untenable situation, because I was doing 10 to 12-hour days. So, we knew that we needed to do something special with the family dental office, which was 4,000 square feet, 10 operatories. So, it was a fairly large office for the time.

And we wanted to do something that would help the community, because the community had been really helpful and wonderful for us, as my parents spent their life there and certainly I grew up there. So, anyway, with the original idea we had, which we thought was going to help the community didn't really work out. So, all of a sudden, I had this responsibility, if you will, back on my shoulders with no idea of what to do with it, but with the need to get something in place pretty quickly.

And I was debating what in the world to do. And we thought maybe we could help the elderly. And then we thought maybe we could help children. And the idea of helping children just really seemed like you could affect their lives and change things for them if we got them early enough. So, we decided that we wanted to do that. And actually, that part came in a flash. I was actually sitting in church and they started raising money for a church in a church in Inglewood that had lost their roof in the earthquake. And I thought, "Wait a second, I've got a building that's fully set up to help people dentally and we could focus on children." And literally within an hour I had the entire thing just come into my mind.

I just started writing. I told my husband, I said, "This is what I think we ought to do." And he goes, "I think that's a great idea." I knew nothing about what I was doing, but I crazily came down with the chickenpox from my daughter, never had a childhood disease in my life and I was stuck at home and I thought, "Well, no time like the present, I'll write a grant." So, I'm writing a little grant and talking to our office manager, Shirley, who you knew from a long time ago.

We came up with this budget and it was $161,000. I thought, "Wow, a lot of money." Sent this in to what now is The California Endowment and amazingly, amazingly got it. And it turned out, we were the first grant recipient of what is now The California Endowment. They didn't know that I didn't have a 501(c)(3). I didn't realize I needed one. So then I get a telephone call that week from a friend and he turned out, he says, "Oh, well I've got an extra one. Do you want to use ours?" We immediately transferred the money in there and then started raising money, and we raised $1 million dollars, rebuilt the center into the Children's Dental Center and it opened.

So, it was just a crazy set of ignorance, maybe, but a tremendous desire to try and help the community. We thought that if we took a slightly different approach, but an approach that concentrated on prevention. And even though we knew these children had tremendous dental needs, we wanted to educate them and teach the family how to prevent oral disease. Because we knew if we could do that, while we were taking care of the problems they had, they would have a skill set that would allow them to maintain that health throughout their lifetime, save a tremendous amount of money for themselves and their family and set them up so that they looked attractive, were healthy, and once they became adults would have a better chance at being successful in life. So, that was kind of the overall concept. It was something that, at the time, was unique. So, I think it got people's attention and it helped us really launch it and get it going.

That is an amazing story and certainly an achievement and having been at that center, and seeing how it's served the populations there so well, it really is a spectacular clinic as well as an educational center, which I think is invaluable for the community there in helping to prepare children and their parents for that first dental visit. For many, that's maybe their very first dental visit, even for the parents. So, it's brought so much to that community.

And after serving and working with running that dental clinic, what prompted you to then start the National Children's Oral Health Foundation? Or as we know it today America's ToothFairy.

Dr. Sheets:
Yes. Well, it was a pretty logical next step, because what I learned was, there is never enough money. We were constantly having to fundraise. And when you think about it as a for-profit professional business owner, it makes sense, because every single patient that you treated, you lost money on, because you weren't doing it for normal fees. So, it's like that old joke about, you were making lots of widgets or whatever it does, but you were losing money on each one, but you made up for it in volume, which just meant you were in more debt. Right?

So, we kept thinking, "Okay, how are we going to deal with this?" And the concept of only getting money through grants was just not viable, because the concept was, "We will fund you for approximately three years and then we don't fund you anymore, because you should be self-sufficient." But the fact is there was no way to be self-sufficient particularly with the way we were approaching it at the time, because the children that we were taking care of had no dental insurance, no subsidies from the government. Because there wasn't anything for that middle group of the working poor children, which now is not politically correct, but it is a definite clear definition of the children we were taking care of. The parents were working, but they weren't making enough money to be able to care for dental needs for their children.

So, you had that problem and it needed a solution. So, one day after a dental convention was over, where our little team's running around with luggage on wheels, going to every single manufacturer to say, "Do you need any of those things you were using for samples, because don't throw it away, we'll take it."

Yes, absolutely.

Dr. Sheets:
Collecting all the samples and everything from everybody. And then we noticed a couple other charities saw us doing that a couple years and they started doing it too. So, there's a war on the floor for just to get to the samples first. So, we had a wonderful, very talented group on our board at the time that were actually CEOs of different companies. So, we had Robert Hayman from Discus Dental. We had Steve Semmelmayer from Kerr Sybron. We had this group of forward-thinking people. And as we all sat around, they said, "We need a national charity for children. We need something that's just focused on kids and dentistry doesn't have that. There's charities, but they have multiple focuses." I knew that we needed to have some sort of source for charities that were already established out there.

And I thought, "What a better way of trying to work with all of these needs if we could just take groups that were already established, but were just desperate for money, like we were, and try and provide them some source that could help make their job easier?" Because month, you're trying to find out how to keep the lights on for many of them out there.

So, we thought, "Let's do something." And we always loved ToothFairy, but at first we thought, "We need to be taken seriously by the profession." So, we came up with The National Children's Oral Health Foundation. And that worked fine for the dental profession, but people didn't like that. So, we said, "Well, really, we're the ToothFairy." And then we became America's ToothFairy, which actually resonated better with everybody. And the goal was to get the presidents of every single major company, which luckily I knew, together on a board and where normally they're competing with each other, being on this board was a neutral island.

That's basically what I'd done with the Children's Dental Center. We had USC, UCLA and Loma Linda [University School of Medicine], all providing residents when we first started. And we said, "This is a neutral zone, where we're all here to help children that are in need." So, with the founding of the board, we got all of these CEOs to come together and they actually had such a great time, because normally out on the floor, they have to be competitive with each other and in the meetings they would say, "Hey, this is so great. And how are you doing, Bob?" "Oh, I'm doing great. How about you, Dan?" And it was really fun to work with them.

So, that was kind of the original concept, get the people at the top to buy onto this. Then once they did, and Fern Ingber, who was the founding CEO prior to you, which I was so thrilled to see us pass the baton to you and take on, because you knew about this in the beginning, she and I would go from CEO to CEO and basically talk them into joining the team. It worked great and it was powerful to see with a small group of people, how much change you could make.

I think that's one of the legacies that America's ToothFairy has, is we have always kept the overhead controlled and been able to cover that by the people, the companies that were supporting us, so that every single dollar that was donated would go right out to the charities. That's a pretty incredible reputation that we have and legacy. So, anyway, and you guys, with what you're doing right now, with your team of five mighty soldiers, just incredible. I know that all the companies that work with us really appreciate the fact that you and your team have kept to this concept of keeping it lean and mean and effective, so that really everything they give doesn't get dissipated on overhead that we've got at the central office, but gets out to the charities that they want to help. So, kudos to you and your team.

Well, thank you so much. And I think what's really exciting is that there has been a lot of continuity in that initial inspiration and passion. Our current board still is representative of multiple dental companies, but everyone's working together to better serve the children that we are trying to reach. I also think that the idea of us becoming a resource provider or evolving into a resource provider, that has really, certainly helped kept us on mission, but more so really helped leverage all of the resources of our clinical partners and other community organizations that we're working with and being able to be a resource for equipment, dental supplies, funding, educational materials, training, virtual programs for education, kind of new creative ways to reach kids, especially over the past couple years with COVID.

That has really allowed us to help each other. And I always see our organization, how do we keep the boots on the ground, well-equipped to do what they need to do? And it's just been exciting to certainly be a part of this and see how it's grown. But I think what really speaks to it is that core mission has remained the same, being there for those organizations. And there hasn't been a lot of deviation from that. That's really, I think, helped us better serve the clinics that we partner with.

Dr. Sheets:
Right. Yeah. All things change over time, because needs change. But to have the concept so clear and to have it stay for so long, I think is one of the secrets of the success. It's a very clear motivation to help the charities that are out there already doing good, but we can make them supported so that they can do even greater things.

Absolutely. So, between 80,000 and 94,000 organizations file for their 501(c)(3) charity designation each year, but only a fraction of them survive. I think we touched on this just now, but certainly if you have anything you'd like to add, how do you feel that America's ToothFairy has remained strong for the past 15 years when so many other nonprofit organizations struggle?

Dr. Sheets:
Yeah, well, we did kind of touch on it, but I think, as I reflect upon that question, that one of the things is certainly that we've stayed true to the mission. It was a mission that was well-supported when we first introduced it and we have been consistent, we haven't veered from it. I think that also between the founders of this and those of you that have continued on internally, we have always understood the importance of having financial literacy with the way that we do what we do, and have tried to run it with some concepts that are based in good business practices.

So, I think that's really important, because so often people want to do good and they are trying to do good, but if they're not based upon something that understands economics and the need for fiscal responsibility, you can very, very quickly get underwater financially. I think that's why a lot just fail, because they can't financially support themselves. Ironically, one of our goals in America's ToothFairy is to help them be able to financially support themselves by taking some of the expenses off, with providing them with things they need, whether it's supplies, like you said, or equipment.

Educational services, I think, it's a wonderful thing that we have developed internally, modified as times have changed, and have been able to provide to the centers, because it's hard for them to come up with things on their own or just to pull different pieces from different companies that are providing things. So, I think that has been the secret that we've been trying to provide things that they need, and that helps us be successful.

Since America's ToothFairy began 15 years ago, what accomplishments are you most proud of? And are there any that you never expected us to achieve?

Dr. Sheets:
Okay. What am I most proud of? Well, first and foremost, we're still here. I'm very proud of that, because, as we both know, some much larger charities have not survived particularly in the last 10 years. So, the fact that our little small mighty group is still here and we're helping so many millions of children and families, I feel really good about, not only personally, but for all of us that have been involved. And it always takes a whole group of dedicated people, not just one.

The other thing I'm really proud about is, as this has gone on, that I am no longer the driving force, that other people have taken up the flag. Because if that transition doesn't happen, the foundation is going to fail, because otherwise it just becomes somebody's private little project. But to have other people come in and take up the flag, and keep moving forward, and coming up with new ways to help and modifying as times change, that's so critical for longevity. So, I am really, really excited. I'm proud of all of you and the work that you're doing, that is taking that forward.

What do I hope for the future? Honestly, I'd be really happy if we can just continue bobbing and weaving with the financial situations that come up and constantly change. And with the needs that constantly change for the charities that we're trying to help. I always go back mentally to where I was when we started the Children's Dental Center and that constant, constant thirst for more supplies, more money, more educational materials, more help, and put myself in the place of all these charities that we're trying to help through America's ToothFairy.

So, to have that national reach and to be able to see the comments from the groups that we're working with and helping, and to see their gratitude and to know how it felt when I was on the other end, receiving that help, is just wonderful. I mean, it makes me feel like all the years of hard work and planning and everything really had a wonderful end result. So, that's what I hope for the future, that we can keep on doing that. And even though we'll morph and change, we want to have that continue on, because it's so needed.

Absolutely. Well, and I also think the initial leadership and inspiration that stemmed from this, I think also gave the organization a spirit of collaboration. As we're talking about how tough it is for other charities, and our organization is literally in place to help support certainly our clinical partners and provide critical resources to community organizations to educate the populations they serve and ensure that they have the oral care products at home to be able to maintain their oral health and as well as our new oral health educators within the community. But certainly being able to partner with other organizations in our space, we all have limited resources, but definitely, certainly my experience has been—I think it's a really, truly a result from the initial leadership and inspiration that you provided—is being able to work with other organizations to help leverage what we can do, because the impact through partnership, I think, dwarfs what we can all do alone.

Dr. Sheets:

And also helps prevent us from working in silos.

Dr. Sheets:
Right. And that was kind of the original idea of, this is a neutral island. You can put aside any feelings of competition, or this is all with the one pure purpose of helping children, period. So, if we can continue to form these collaborations, it always makes what you're doing stronger and easier and better. There's no downside, only an upside. I'm just so proud of all of the continuing collaborations that you and your team, Jill, have been able to set up, it's really strengthened the organization.

Then, just finally, from a dentist's perspective, you have given so much to your profession as well as to those in need. Can you talk to me a little bit about what you find rewarding about participating in our organization or donated services that you've provided in the past. Talk to me a little bit about what was rewarding about those experiences and why you think it's important for other dental professionals to get involved.

Dr. Sheets:
Yeah, I can. I think that for me, having a private dental practice that really focused on overall health and wellness, and that the mouth is connected to the rest of the body, and the mouth helps control systemic health, because it's the first place that breaks down. That seeing in a practice that was caring for people with very severe needs. And to see them be able to turn their lives around just because we spent extra time teaching them the simple things, brushing, flossing, biofilm control, diet control, all of those things. And to see if these people invest large sums of money to rebuild their mouths and to see that it changed them and that they would maintain it then for 10, 20, 30, 40 years after that with only minor things, that really was the inspiration for the Children's Dental Center.

Because I thought if these people with totally destroyed mouths could actually change their behavior enough so that it didn't break down again. And they were quite frankly financially motivated not to have this happen to them again, I thought, "What a gift," if we can take this to a group of children who will never ever be able to afford to do their mouths completely like this group of people and teach them early and their families how to prevent dental disease, because it's so easy to prevent and teach them the simple, basic understanding of brushing, flossing, biofilm control, let them know how that makes their lives healthier.

Then you have these children that look healthy, that have these beautiful smiles, that people respond to better, that helps them with their self-image, that helps them with their life, and they learn these skill sets. And what we found in research is they pass that on to their children. So, you actually can stop the family problem of, "All my teeth are bad. My parents teeth were bad. Oh, I can't help it. I'm a victim." And you change it to, "I am in control. All I have to do is break up this biofilm in my mouth and I can have a healthy mouth." And it empowers people and it empowers children.

The other thing that really became so impactful to me is that, not only as a child, when their mouth is completely destroyed, devastated, as far as their relationships with people in school and then, of course, if they have abscesses, they're in pain, and all of that, that's one thing. But think about that child growing up now with this mouth that's deteriorating more and nobody kind of knows what to do. And the only care they're getting is extractions. They're going to be crippled emotionally and physically from that point on. How are they going to get jobs? How are they going to be out there in the marketplace? Where so much emphasis is put on beauty and on health. And they've been marginalized before they even get into the starting gate to start their life. So, I don't mean to be preachy, but you asked what inspires me and what inspires me is helping them be able to have a life, that's got endless possibilities.

Wonderful. Yes! And I think reinforcing that oral health, overall health systemic connection is critical and you're absolutely right. It's a lifetime of potential, that we can offer them by working together. So Dr. Sheets, we are so grateful for your support and leadership on our board and look forward to working with you for years to come to help change the lives of children across this country. We thank you so much for your time today.

Dr. Sheets:
It's my pleasure. It's always fun to talk with you. It's so great to see what all you're doing.

Well, thank you.

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