By Mary Harp-Jirschele, J. J. Keller Foundation
When I attended the Association of Small Foundations’ 2010 National Conference in Austin, Texas, little did I know that I’d return to Northeastern Wisconsin with an idea that would change the face of dental care for thousands of needy children in our region.
During the ASF conference, I participated in the half-day site visit opportunity, and we traveled by bus to a variety of unique programs that benefited low-income people, which is the hallmark of the foundation I represent, the J. J. Keller Foundation, based in Neenah, WI.
One of those site visits took us to a school where a brightly colored bus was parked – not to transport children to and from school, but a unique bus that was fully loaded with dental equipment and traveled from school to school, serving the dental needs of needy children. St. David’s Foundation in Austin was credited with the gift, and I scooped up the materials and brought them home with me…and 18 months later, there is a big, blue, state-of-the-art mobile dental clinic making its way throughout our region!
The $779,000 mobile dental clinic was unveiled at the J. J. Keller Foundation on May 22, and I’m proud to say that our foundation was the first $300,000 in the door (the largest single grant to the project). The bus is already debt-free and owned by Tri-County Community Dental Clinic (TCCDC), a program that serves people in poverty in our region. TCCD has a freestanding clinic in Appleton, WI, with a program called “Focus on the Children.” They’ve served 3,000 children since its inception in 2009, and with the new mobile unit, that number is expected to more than double in one year. More children than ever before will receive free dental screenings and fluoride varnish applications, along with follow-up hygiene and restoration services as needed.
Most remarkably, all of this dental care is provided by an all-volunteer staff of dentists! Since the clinic building was opened in 2003, more than 50,000 adults and children have been served by 140 volunteer dentists who gave 35,000 hours of service.
The unveiling of the bus was amazing! It was hidden away in a warehouse while background information was shared with the 200-plus people in attendance (including many local news media). With the crowd chanting, “Move that bus,” the new mobile clinic made its debut, and there were many “oohs and aahs” as the 39-foot unit arrived.
Bob Glass, executive director of the clinic, offered a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that set the tone for the day: “’The test of morality of a society is what it does for its children,’ and contributors to this project have certainly brought these words to life.” As a community foundation representative said, “This clinic brings a busload of hope to a lot of people.”
My comments to the media included the statement, “The most compelling thing about this project is the ability to bring dental care to the children rather than bringing the children to the clinic.” No longer do parents have to take a half-day off of work to take their children to the clinic! And kids aren’t missing big chunks of time from school. In fact, one of the first children treated at the clinic was an 8-year-old autistic boy with a horribly abscessed tooth. The dentist who cared for him said he was back in his classroom in 45 minutes!
And to think all of this happened because I opted for a “day in the sunshine” at the ASF conference! Thank you, ASF, for opening our eyes to the possibilities all around us!
Mary Harp-Jirschele is the Executive Director of the J. J. Keller Foundation, a family foundation that has provided $30 million in grants to causes and concerns in the Fox Valley over the past 20 years. The Foundation was started as a gift from Jack Keller, founder of J. J. Keller & Associates, for his wife’s 70th birthday in 1991. Together, they enjoyed teaching their children and grandchildren about philanthropy.
When she’s not at work, Mary is on a number of local Boards of Directors, including Affinity Health System and past president of the Fox Valley Symphony Board. She is a volunteer cook at the Emergency Shelter, and has done eyeglass mission trips to Nicaragua and Honduras.