07/25/2012 11:31 am ET | Updated Sep 24, 2012

Smiling Bright

We adopted our son from Guatemala. When my wife and I flew there in 2005 from the United States to get him, we fell in love with the country and the people. As we toured the colonial city of Antigua, a young boy with stained hands approached us. He was carrying a shoeshine kit, and a blackened cotton towel, begging to shine my shoes. The fact that I was wearing tennis shoes didn't deter him. Even after leaving the country with our first child, happy and fulfilled -- finally, we were parents! -- we couldn't shake the image of the shoeshine boy and other children like him in Guatemala. Being in a country where more than half the population lives in poverty, we knew we would return someday.

In 2010, we returned to Guatemala with Buckner International, a Dallas-based humanitarian organization. During this trip, a group of volunteers invited us to help at a dental clinic at a community center operated by Buckner, outside of Guatemala City.

My assignment was to teach the children how to brush their teeth. I was almost floored when one of the volunteers explained that while some of the children were brushing their teeth for the first time, many didn't even own toothbrushes.The children had big, beautiful smiles, and they proudly showed me their teeth after brushing. Many of them had red, swollen gums and several cavities in their little mouths. It was heartbreaking knowing that much of what I was seeing was preventable. It seemed so basic to me as an American, the importance of dental care. Dental care is so valued here in the U.S. that states are required to provide dental benefits to children covered by Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program.

What we encountered in this community outside of Guatemala City represented a reality for much of the world. According to the World Health Organization, in most developing low-income countries, more than 90 percent of cavities go untreated. Columbia University College of Dental Medicine also addressed this issue by stating that the appropriateness of characterizing cavities as "pandemic" because of their "global distribution and severe consequences." Additionally untreated tooth decay can lead to unbearable pain, and the disruption of a child's ability to eat, sleep, speak, play and learn.

We left Guatemala knowing we needed to do something as a response to what we saw. It was this experience that led us to create Smile Squared, a company dedicated to improving the health of children around the world. Our business model is buy one/give one. For every toothbrush purchased, we donate one to a child in need. We also wanted to be good for the environment. As we researched toothbrushes, we came across these alarming facts:

  • An estimated 50 million pounds of plastic toothbrushes are tossed in U.S. landfills each year.

  • A trash vortex of plastic, estimated to be twice the size of Texas, exists in the Pacific Ocean.
  • Having this information, we decided to search out viable alternatives to plastic for our toothbrush. We ultimately decided to have our handles crafted from bamboo. In addition to being biodegradable, bamboo is one of the most sustainable plants on the Earth. It's easily harvested, naturally regenerative, and fast growing tropical grass grown without pesticides or chemicals. We can't cure all the ills of the world, but we feel an obligation to make a difference where we can. This journey has led us to a network of many dedicated employees and volunteers with the non-profit organizations partner with to distribute our toothbrushes to children who need them most. One such organization is Buckner International. I'll never forget first hearing news that our initial batch of donated toothbrushes was being distributed. Dexton Shores, a regional director with Buckner International, sent us an e-mail with pictures from a clinic held in Oaxaca, Mexico. According to Shores, more than 400 toothbrushes were distributed at this clinic to impoverished children living by a landfill. Many of the children that received toothbrushes live in houses constructed from sheets of tin with no running water. Buckner taught the children how to change their hygiene and nutritional habits even though they may not have much. Another organization we have donated through is International Justice Mission (IJM). IJM is a human rights agency that brings rescue to victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression. Our toothbrushes were distributed in Kenya, Bangalore, Mumbai, Cebu and Cambodia through care kits since many of the people IJM helps come to them with only the "clothes on their backs," said Kathy Stout-LaBauve, IJM's Vice President of Aftercare. Not only do we appreciate relationships we've made in the non-profit world, but we are just as excited about those we are making in the business world. We are proud to announce that the Filaments Division of DuPont recently announced a commitment to donate enough Herox® bristles for 1 million Smile Squared toothbrushes. Herox® bristles are made from 60 percent renewable raw materials, such as soy. Hok-Hoh Wong, CEO of DuPont Filaments, Shanghai, said "we are pleased to have the opportunity to work with Smile Squared on this worthwhile cause. We are able to help children in need, and do so with sustainable materials." We didn't set out to design the most perfectly made, Earth-friendly toothbrush. Our focus is to balance responsible business practices with current technology to accomplish our mission to provide toothbrushes to children in need -- many of which have never owned one. Starting a business like ours hasn't been easy. The learning curve has been steep, and we have learned quite a bit along the way. Despite this, our mission is straightforward and simple. I think Phyllis Diller must have had us in mind when she said, "A smile is a curve that sets things straight." Next time you go out to buy a toothbrush, just ask yourself if it really gives you a smile. If nothing else, we know that our Smile Squared toothbrushes offer more than smiles to the people who buy them, and more importantly, to the children who get to use them.