We’re excited to share more about this exciting organization! In our next article, we’ll introduce some of the changes Kids Smiles is experiencing due to the current pandemic, and how the organization is adapting its delivery model ― for the better! It’s a great #silverlinings story ― so stay tuned!
Article 2: What we’re doing right now
In one of our recent articles, we introduced you to one of our favorite partners, Kids Smiles, a non-profit dedicated to expanding the practice of oral healthcare in 3 clinics located within Philadelphia’s underserved communities through education and community partnerships. Over the past year and a half, COVID radically changed the way they worked and planned, as was the case with so many of our clients, friends, and partners.
We spoke with Cheryl Janssen, Founding Executive Director and CEO, about how the pandemic affected operations for Kids Smiles, what those changes meant to their evolving business model, and even a few unexpected silver linings!
It seems like a lifetime ago, but do you remember “where you were” when the pandemic was first hitting Kids Smiles’ operations?
It was such a chaotic time. So much was unknown ― it felt like each day brought new changes. What I remember most intensely was the way we had to pivot, day-to-day, to address the ever-changing rules. We were working 24/7 just to keep up. Then, it got to that moment where the world just stopped. We couldn't work at all.
How did your team initially handle the shutdown?
It was heartbreaking. We went from a period of positive and exciting momentum to having to lay off 80 percent of our workforce. In addition to laying off the staff, we had to notify our scheduled families that we could not treat their children. Our dentists went through each case, to assure that children with emergency- or high-need could receive treatment. The skeleton staff we kept had agreed to work in clinics and treat children with emergencies, which was what we were still allowed to do. But it was pretty scary ― remember, we had no idea what COVID was ― all we could relate to people were the stories of people who’d gotten sick and died. Everyone was scared.
What happened next? What did work look like for those following months?
It was very rewarding to watch a core team of people come together in offices and show up to treat the kids. We had a learning curve for sure ― and it was changing constantly. We learned teledentistry isn’t a great option for us ― it’s very hard to take a picture of the inside of a child’s mouth to identify anything to any real extent. Parents can try, and we can triage a little, but seeing them in person is really the best way to address an oral health emergency. So each office had a core of about five people ― and they motivated and advanced each other.
We also learned a lot more about this one portion of our work ― meaning, what a true number of dental emergencies meant. We were seeing six to ten emergencies each day per office over four days, regularly. From a business perspective, that created a specific line of thinking, as we considered how long we could maintain that level of care with very little income. So we could plan, though we were planning for the inevitable point where we’d run out of funds and could just no longer operate. We got really close to the wire by the end of April.
Were you able to take advantage of any of the PPP or other programs?
We looked at all sorts of options, yes ― we considered a line of credit which wasn’t ideal. Staff took pay cuts while working harder than they probably ever had, to be sure we could keep the organization running until back to fuller operations again ― and those cuts stayed in place for several months until we really stabilized. We were fortunate to receive PPP money to carry us until dentistry opened up and we could ramp back up. Those funds still aid us today as we are still not at 100 percent of pre-COVID operations.
During that time, a number of our funders ― The Philadelphia Foundation, Philadelphia Health Partnership, Independence Blue Cross Foundation, and Delaware County Foundation ― put normal requirements aside and offered grants to existing grantees to carry over to operations for a period of –time, with that buffer, plus PPP –money, we knitted it all together to keep the organization open until we could restore normal operations.
What role did DENTALEZ play during this time?
Just prior to COVID, coincidentally, we’d been in the throes of opening a new office. DENTALEZ had provided us with equipment that we were able to use in our current offices because we didn’t open the new Northeast office. The equipment was there for us to use without delay. From a human/talent perspective ― Heather Trombley, DENTALEZ President and COO, was on our Board and was deeply involved in our “what if” strategies, reviewing options, lending advice, and contributing thoughts.
When did things start stabilizing for Kids Smiles?
By the end of June 2020, we could partially reopen. By August we were back to 85 percent operational, and that’s where we remained. We tweaked our model and learned to flow patients differently to prioritize safety, from minimizing patients’ trips on public transit (remember no one was vaccinated yet!), to less crowded waiting rooms and shorter waiting times. We’ve kept these changes in place ever since.
And what do operations look like now? Tell us more about those silver linings…
Well, as I’d mentioned earlier, we were in a period of great momentum and were about to open a third office, in Northeast Philadelphia. Because of that, we had contributions from DENTALEZ like dental stools, chairs, divider systems, compressors, and vacuums.
Just before COVID really hit, we happened to have an issue with our contractors who said we need a variance to turn this space into a dental suite. The variance could (and did!) take months and with our opening scheduled just a few weeks away, this was a complete disaster! But in hindsight, that variance ended up saving us hiring an entire team and launching a brand-new dental center and then getting hit by COVID and having to lay off the new staff. While it was frustrating out of the gate, it turned out to be such a silver lining. We quietly opened the space with a very small staff performing very limited services within COVID safety restrictions. And the doctor we’d hired for that center wasn’t able to join us full-time in March, so we were able to align our needs with her schedule and bring her on fully at exactly the time that worked best for her AND the clinic, later that summer.
We also got resourceful and created some terrific things we’d never had time to do or understood the need for.
I really feel the changes we’ve put in place ramping up our safety protocols and adjusting our patient flow are ultimately silver linings for our entire operation, from staff to patient.
And on our outreach and education side, when the pandemic dramatically limited our ability to provide these services, our Outreach and Education Director created an online virtual toolkit with a series of online educational videos focused on oral health practices and nutrition and an up-to-date bank of health resources and links, which we sent via email to camps and daycares to distribute to their audiences. As of the end of October 2021, we have added more content and are soliciting feedback from our early recipients before the formal launch during Children’s Dental Health Month in February 2022.
Amazing! But I’m sure you’re still feeling the effects of the pandemic ― if people want to help, how can they get involved?
We have a few different ways to get involved. Time is always important ― we can’t incorporate volunteers quite yet due to COVID but we hope to get back to that soon. Meanwhile, we have many committees and our Board that allow people to jump in and help further advance the mission. My door is always open to talk to anyone interested ― you can find my contact information at www.KidsSmiles.org.
We also hold an annual fundraiser, which is also posted on our site. Contributions are used to help offset costs, pay staff, purchase additional equipment, or further our educational efforts.
Thanks Cheryl. We’re so impressed and delighted to be part of such a great organization!
*Stay tuned for more news about Kids Smiles coming soon