January 2009
Volume 5, Issue 1

Connect in Chicago—The 19th Annual Oral Health America Gala and Benefit

February brings the focus of the oral healthcare world to the Windy City for the Chicago Dental Society’s Midwinter Meeting. On the evening of the 26th, that focus will narrow to Navy Pier, site of the 19th Annual Oral Health America Gala & Benefit. Attended by over 900 dental industry leaders and Oral Health America (OHA) friends, the Gala raises funds for school oral health services for children without routine access to dental care, and increases the visibility and public understanding of oral health. A major networking event for the dental industry, the Gala is a venue for individual and corporate sponsors to be recognized as major supporters of OHA. “It’s really the unofficial kickoff to the Midwinter, the kickoff to the season,” said Gala co-chair Genevieve Bauer Altier. “Come out to Chicago and let’s connect again.”

“It’s a very unique event,” concurred OHA president and CEO Beth Truett, who succeeded Robert Klaus in September 2008. “I’m fairly new to OHA and one of the things that has impressed me as I’ve spoken to people is that this is the ultimate event which allows them to do well by doing good. It is not only a social event or a philanthropic event, but a business event. Many other galas that I’ve been exposed to don’t have those three qualities all wrapped up in one. That it would happen in Chicago in the middle of winter...is a testimony to the quality of the CDS meeting.”

Doing Well by Doing Good

Ms. Truett’s comment about the Gala could just as well be applied to OHA as an organization. A fully independent non-profit organization based in Chicago, OHA is supported through contributions from individuals who believe that oral health should be recognized as one of the lifetime factors critical to overall health.

OHA was founded in 1955 as the “American Fund for Dental Health” by members of the American Dental Association, American Dental Education Association, the American Dental Trade Association, and the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company to raise funds for the improvement of dental education. In 1994, OHA broke away from its founding institutions to follow a path of broad-based public advocacy through targeted programs and communications efforts to improve oral health for all Americans.

OHA develops, implements, and facilitates educational and service programs designed to raise awareness of oral health’s importance to total health. “We’re all about serving the children, the underserved, and the elderly,” said Margaret Cottrell, secretary/treasurer of the OHA Board of Directors. “The one thing I have noticed that has remained consistent is that the Board of Directors has one focus. It has been of one mind in its mission for as long as I have been around OHA. The Board changes, faces go off, faces come on, but it’s one mission that we’re going after: the underserved. That’s where our programs are targeted. If we can’t step forward and help those that cannot help themselves, then we’re in a really bad spot as a country.”

OHA’s major accomplishments over the past 15 years include:

  • Founder and director of Smiles Across America®, the first nationwide campaign to coordinate schools, governments, care providers, and corporate and community partners in the fight against tooth decay.
  • Architect of the Campaign for Oral Health Parity, reaching over 50% of American households—over 180 million people—with messages about oral health’s importance to total health.
  • Recipient of two competitive 5-year (1999-2003; 2004-2009) Cooperative Agreements with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Founder (1994) and director of the National Spit Tobacco Education Program® (NSTEP) with Major and Minor League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association.
  • Founder (2004) and lead agent of the National Periodontal Disease Coalition, a group of over 45 business and professional leaders dedicated to improving the recognition of and treatment practices for a disease that affects most adults.
  • Recognized America’s Promise partner, committed to delivering 1 million donated dental sealants to 225,000 children by 2010—to date, have provided over 750,000 sealants.
  • Organized and led Oral Health 2000 (1994-2000), a program to address the Healthy People 2000 oral health goals, with Dr. C. Everett Koop as Chairman.
  • Major funder of the Institute of Medicine’s landmark Study of Dental Education.
  • Charter founder/funder of Special Olympics Special Smiles with Special Olympics.

OHA’s extensive relationships and partnerships with members of the public, private, and non-profit sector are unmatched in the oral health community in number and breadth. One of these collaborating groups is the Chicago Department of Public Health. Mary Pat Burgess, RDH, MBA, related her experience with OHA: “I am the Program Coordinator for our School-Based Public Health Program for the city. We’re contracted with the Chicago public school system to be their gatekeepers for healthcare in the city’s public schools. We turn around and we contract with private enterprise to come into the schools and provide our oral health program: a dental exam, fluoride varnish treatment, cleanings, and dental sealants as needed. We have a referral system that we refer out to for extended care. What happens is the providers go into the schools and provide those services. OHA has provided outside funding for the dentists to help with the children that don’t have insurance or public aid.”

According to Liz Rogers, director of communications at OHA, the partnership provided care for 60,000 children during the 2007-2008 school year. “They have also provided grant money to provide equipment and supplies for our offices and students,” Ms. Burgess added. “They have been able to step in and help us assist the private practices and provide donations of sealant material and etchant gel. They are very good at that kind of thing. They go out and seek the tools and equipment that you need to provide a better service and make it available to the program. They help facilitate getting the services to the children. They do it with supplies, they do it with funding equipment, they do it with financial assistance to offset the cost of treating children who are not covered on any level. They’ve been a godsend, truly.”

Keith Suchy, DDS, co-chair of the 2009 Gala and member of OHA’s Board of Directors, added, “It’s rewarding to see how well the few dollars that we’ve spent are amassed and what a wonderful impact we do make and I think that’s probably what keeps us all driving forward. Access to care is a huge problem in the United States, but I honestly feel that we make a mark and if we can get some notoriety in a community and foster partnerships with existing programs or bring programs into economically disadvantaged communities, I think we’re doing wonderful work. I know in some cases it’s only scratching the surface, but it’s putting your money where your mouth is and getting something done. I’m very proud of what OHA has become and the direction we’re headed.”

The Party at the Pier

For one night, at least, that direction is Navy Pier, where the 19th Gala & Benefit will once again unite the dental community, bringing practitioners and industry members together in support of a mission of universal importance. “The Gala has been a tremendous experience for me as a practicing dentist to network within industry and explore many common goals,” said Mary Hayes, DDS, who chaired or co-chaired the three previous Galas. “The thing that OHA recognized a long time ago was that partnerships and relationships are very important to OHA’s mission, and it’s been successful all these years, especially with this Gala event, because of this. You see that the relationship building has become concretized within the actual event. It’s a place to have a common goal of promoting overall good health.”

“This is a tremendous networking event,” Ms. Bauer Altier concurred. “It’s one of the places that I see where people come together to really network and shake hands and understand each other as people rather than as parts of the businesses that we belong to.”

Dr. Suchy agreed. “It’s really impressive to watch the networking on the evening of the Gala. The electricity in the air is very evident. It’s exciting. Even though many of us on the dental side and the dental trade side have opportunities to travel to many meetings and meet on several occasions, it just seems that this is one of the largest, if not the largest, gatherings of dental colleagues and dental trade: a really a nice mix between a networking opportunity and recognition and devotion to OHA and hopefully some financial support.”

Largely responsible for the organization and success of the evening is the Gala Committee, this year headed by Dr. Suchy and Ms. Bauer Altier. “I’ve followed in Mary Hayes’s shoes,” said Dr. Suchy. “I co-chaired with her last year and asked Genevieve to co-chair with me this year. We have a really nice mix of young fresh energy and some seasoned veterans that have been with us for all 18 of the Galas.”

One of those veterans is Ms. Cottrell, who has attended every OHA Gala and served on the Gala Committee beginning with the second Gala. As the years have passed and the event has grown, she has seen it hosted at the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Petroleum Club, as well as its current home at Navy Pier. “The first event was 200 people or so and it was basically by word of mouth and invitations from Robert Klaus and our Chairman Emeritus Bernie Beazley,” she said.

Since then, the event has quintupled in attendees. “We thought we were tapped out at 900 in 2007 and we ended up last year having about 1,050—our dance floor gets smaller and smaller!” said Dr. Hayes. “Three or four years ago, when so much consolidation was happening in the industry, we really wondered what it would do to us, but we continued to grow even so. We’re projecting 900 to 1,000 this year.”

“It’s really been a wonderful growth,” Dr. Suchy added. “Being involved with this the past few years, it’s just been stunning to see. Each year you think you’ve done a wonderful job and the next year you see more sponsors, more attendees, more notoriety for OHA at the end of the day.”

The growth in attendance offers OHA an unprecedented opportunity to leverage support for its programs. “It’s interesting to watch how this event has evolved,” Ms. Cottrell reflected. “Originally when we started this out it was billed as a ‘friend-raiser’ and it wasn’t for a few years that we realized this was an event with a mission and it became a ‘fund-raiser’ as well. So we added a raffle. The next year we had a raffle and a silent auction. And several years later we had the raffle, the silent auction, and a live auction. So we have targeted the fact that we need to be soliciting funds, raising funds for our programs, because they are supported through donations, through the kindness of the people who participate in our industry.”

The Economic Shadow

Last year, the Gala generated more than $240,000 for OHA. Such generosity is extremely important to OHA because “it is essentially unrestricted revenue,” explained Ms. Truett. “When you look at the numbers on healthcare and folks who are insured, while it’s 46 million in terms of the general population that doesn’t have insurance, we’re looking at 130 million Americans without dental insurance. With children alone, 51 million hours a year are lost due to dental disease. It impacts in so many ways—not only in one’s health, but in overall well-being; being able to participate in school, to participate in society. So unrestricted revenue is an important part of what we need.”

“This is a total volunteer organization,” noted Ms. Cottrell. “We don’t have members who pay dues to belong to OHA. We count on people in and out of the industry to help support our programs.”

This year, that support must come in a climate of economic challenge such as this country has not seen for almost 75 years. “Yes, it’s a daunting time,” said Dr. Suchy. “But the need is only greater in times like this, not less, and I think in some of our worst times some of the best that people have to offer comes out. We’re counting on it.”

“I think the Gala shows the community that we’re still supporting and still continuing our efforts to provide oral care. I think that’s very important,” added Ms. Bauer Altier. “With the economic situation, obviously we can’t expect the same results as in the past, but I think there are some things that are dear to people’s hearts and I think this is one of them and that people will continue to give even in more difficult economic times.”

Ms. Truett echoed her co-chairs: “I don’t feel dreary at all about this economic environment. Some individuals will need to pick and choose philanthropies, but I believe that when people hear a message that makes sense, they see a need and are able to participate in fulfilling it, they step up to the cause.”

Early returns indicate that this sense of optimism is well founded. At the time this article was written, 19 organizations had already signed up at various levels to sponsor the Gala (see Sidebar). “We’ve got some challenges ahead of us this year, and the economy is one of them,” said Ms. Cottrell. “But I don’t see people shrinking away from the event, at least from a sponsorship level. We’re getting sponsorships, which is awesome—such a help to the event and to OHA.”

After the Ball

The 19th Annual Gala & Benefit will come to an end after a few hours of fine food, dancing, camaraderie, and entertainment. Tuxedos and gowns will be relegated to storage, but the work for OHA will have just begun. Ms. Truett took a few moments to speak about what is ahead for OHA.

“We have just about completed a strategic plan we began in September. From a programmatic perspective, I’m going to call it a three-legged stool. The first leg is continuing to provide access to care, focusing not only on children through Smiles Across America, but also on older Americans and people with special needs,” she said.

“The second leg involves connecting the dots very intentionally between dental health and overall health and wellness. To that extent we’ll be working with educational institutions, other non-profit groups, and with the government to raise a voice on behalf of the public. We’ve added a person who’s working solely on e-development and e-communications, so we’re going to be strengthening our online platform and taking full advantage of this great community that we’re working with.”

Finally, “the third leg focuses on public policy,” Ms. Truett said. “We intend to take full advantage of the change in administration and the support we see coming down the pike for healthcare reform. We want to make absolutely certain dental health is included with overall health in whatever policy decisions are made. Right now, oral health and mental health are both looked at as health promotion rather than health care. So there is a lot of raising awareness that needs to be done. The good news is that it’s started, and we’re certainly not the only folks on this bandwagon. The key is that OHA always has been a collaborative organization. I see us becoming an even more collaborative organization.”

Other efforts on the horizon for OHA include an acceleration of fund-raising efforts and opening three new Smiles Across America sites each year for the next 3 years, for a total of nine new sites by 2011.

“These are ambitious goals,” Ms. Truett said. “But I think this is a great time to take advantage of the increased information that’s coming out of the scientific and educational communities about associations and evidence-based research in terms of these linkages.”

Call to Action

It is the Gala that will help realize OHA’s ambitious goals. “OHA continues to support oral health and overall health and we would really like the continued support of the people within the industry,” said Ms. Bauer Altier. “This is a great event and we hope people will continue to come and support the cause.”

Ms. Truett concurred. “One of the Gala goals, for me, is raising the awareness of OHA. We know that it’s a great networking event and a great friend-raising event, but we are looking to capture people’s imagination beyond the event and bring them into the fold over a longer period of time. That is a challenge that we still have out there, and I would love for more people to leave the party knowing about OHA and wanting to be part of the organization going forward.”

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