PATERSON, NJ - Although the filming of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story has turned Smile Central Dental’s parking lot into a demolition site from 1950’s New York City, these Paterson dentists refuse to let the movie get in the way of their important mission: to eradicate pediatric dental issues in the city.
Dr. Robert Grunstein, 45, DMD, is the co-founder of Smile Central Dental, which has locations in Paterson, Passaic, and Union City. A 2001 graduate from the Maurice H. Kornberg School of Dentistry at Temple University, Grunstein has dedicated his life to serving the Paterson community. Providing dental care to 80 percent of the children in the city for 17 years, Smile Central is the largest dentist office in New Jersey in terms of volume of patients.
“Paterson did not have its own pediatric practice, and I really wanted to help the kids in Paterson who didn’t have a dedicated pedo practice,” says Grunstein.
To serve the community, Grunstein, along with Cecilia Mescain, 44, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Smile Central, created a mobile dental office out of an old fire truck, performed free health screenings at Paterson’s public schools, performed puppet shows for patient dental education, and offered free access to dental care.
“It’s nice to know that your kids have cavities, but if there’s no place to take them, it’s kind of useless information,” says Grunstein. “And if there are no offices that see kids in big numbers, then effectively, there’s no access to care.”
Mescain states that Smile Central’s mission is “ … to enhance the life of everybody that we come in contact with. If you’re a patient, we eradicate cavities. If you’re a parent, we will educate you to make sure you take care of your kid’s teeth. If you’re an employee, we will give you an opportunity that no one else has given you in this field, which is to make a career in the dental field.”
Grunstein explains that before he started Smile Central in 2004, he was inspired by a patient he saw in his former place of employment, West Broadway Dental. He says that a woman came in with her child, who had 5 to 6 abscesses, and he could not believe that she “let that happen to her kid.”
“She broke down and started crying and said, ‘You’re the 11th dentist that I’ve taken by kid to. Nobody wants to touch my child.’ That just broke my heart and I wanted to make sure people weren’t in that same situation,” he recalls.
Although Grunstein and Mescain no longer do school trips, they work with Head Start, a program that provides comprehensive health education to low-income children and parents, to provide dental care to those who need it most. Children in Passaic County that participate in Head Start are eligible to receive free dental exams from Smile Central.
Smile Central not only helps increase dental IQ in Paterson, but also has a system of employment that allows Patersonians to pursue careers in dentistry. Rather than hire trained professionals which can be expensive, Smile Central hires young, untrained individuals and trains them on the job. This system, which comes out of necessity to keep costs low, has been credited as one of the best dental training programs.
“Many of our patients have become employees of the practice,” says Mescain. “Smile Central Dental has produced at least 6 to 7 dental hygienists, employees that never had a job in the dental field, that worked for us and decided to go to hygiene school and become hygienists.”
In addition to dental-related initiatives, Smile Central also awards three scholarships for high school seniors going to college.
Mescain loves giving back to Paterson because the community is grateful, respectful and appreciative of their work.
“We owe so much to this community, they trusted us when we just had a chair and a room. They trust us and they keep coming for years,” she says.
Casey Ferrante is entering her second year at Georgetown and is an intern for TAPinto Paterson.
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