You are recognized as a leader in 2020 for your work creating Help a Child Smile. What prompted you to start this particular cause?
“I began Project Help a Child Smile in 2016, after the death of my grandmother from oral cancer. My research after her death led me to the U.S. surgeon general’s report ‘The Dental Crisis in America.’ It describes oral disease as a silent epidemic nationally and highlights the high rates of oral cancer and dental disease among low-income and underserved populations. Oral health care inequalities came into the national spotlight starkly when the sad case of Deamonte Driver made headlines. Public outcry was raised about how a child could die from a toothache in the United States. An $80 extraction that could have treated his decayed tooth turned into a $250,000 brain surgery ordeal, and finally resulted in his death. His family, unable to afford treatment and awaiting Medicaid approval, could not find a doctor to see him. Ironically, Prince George’s County, where he lived, was named one of the best places in the country for children’s health care.
“Reading about the difficulties that low-income families face in accessing affordable care, and having lost my grandmother to oral cancer, made me determined to do something to create change. For the past four years, I have been working to bridge the gap in oral health care inequalities and to raise awareness of the importance of early detection of oral cancer. I have focused my efforts in underserved and rural communities of Georgia, and the Bhalswa slum district in Delhi, one of India’s poorest and most populous areas.”
What are some of the obstacles or hurdles you have had to overcome in order to start the Help a Child Smile project?
“I smile as I answer this question because the list of challenges is lengthy. From designing dental health educational brochures to finding print stores for cost-effective printing, coordinating times for seminars, working with corporate dental companies for hygiene supplies, arranging areas for distribution, packaging and sending supplies to India, working in the crowded slum district in Delhi in 110-degree heat, connecting people to doctors and hospitals for oral cancer screenings and free or low-cost treatment—the list of challenges that I faced while trying to bring my work together is extensive. I have created a national registry where people can find low-cost dental care in their area, and gradually systems have been streamlined, but there is still a lot more to do. As a new challenge comes up, I find a way to self-correct and develop alternative ways to handle tasks.
“I give credit to Girl Scouts for providing me with the guidance and resources I received to work through many of these obstacles. With the support of Girl Scouts platform, and the valued mentorship of experienced advisers, I was able to lead my work toward successful outcomes and to even greater results than I would have ever imagined possible.”
Youth movements have great power to create change. But remember that dreams also need hard work to bring them to fruition. Be sincere and dedicated—you must be wholly invested in the process to inspire others to join your cause.
- Siya Kalra
What has been your biggest accomplishment to date?
“I would consider the expansion of Project Help a Child Smile among my biggest accomplishments. Help a Child Smile is an oral health care delivery model that is working to bridge the divide in oral health care inequalities through three foundational pillars: early education to increase awareness of dental disease, free hygiene supplies to aid prevention, and accessible and affordable dental care for low-income families to treat disease. It is a grassroots movement instituting change at three levels: education, prevention and treatment. Over four years, my project has educated 5,000+ families through dental health seminars, collected 130,000+ supplies through community donations and corporate sponsorships, provided hygiene kits to 15,000 children, and created an oral health care provider network that has delivered more than 10,000 hours of free treatment in underserved areas of Georgia and the Bhalswa slum district. I have led 150+ volunteers while instituting the model in communities.
“My project is also working hard to raise awareness about the early detection of oral cancer to save lives. It has distributed 18,000+ cancer awareness pamphlets, it connects people to doctors of the Oral Cancer Foundation for free screenings, and it has funded oral cancer biopsies and medicines for patients in India. I have set up a nonprofit organization, The Neelok Foundation, in memory of my grandmother to support its work.
“As my project has grown, other high school and college students have joined in, and we are working to set up replicable models of Help a Child Smile in low-income areas and underserved areas in other states. I have extended my project to chapters in four other states, and I’ve partnered with mobile health programs to deliver supplies to rural areas of Georgia and to distribute educational materials. Dental offices are volunteering their time to provide free days of dental care. I am grateful and humbled by the enthusiastic response I have received and the generous donations of time, supplies and money that people and organizations have provided to support my project.”
What advice do you have for other young people trying to advocate for change in 2020?
“It is important to keep your dreams alive and believe in yourself. Youth movements have great power to create change. But remember that dreams also need hard work to bring them to fruition. Be sincere and dedicated—you must be wholly invested in the process to inspire others to join your cause.
“Break a large task down into manageable goals and be meticulously organized. Reach out to others for help and advice. During my project work, one of my greatest joys has been what I have learned through my interactions with people across states and oceans, and I marvel at the generosity of others to share their time. Each person has a unique perspective and some pearl of wisdom to share; their insights have been tremendously helpful.
“No idea is ever too small! If you see something wrong that you want to fix, that can make a positive impact on your community, find the resources and work to make it better. It is never too late to start, and today is a good day!”