About a year and a half ago, Donna White was driving her daughter to school, wondering how she and her husband were going to pay for the girl’s estimated $6,000 orthodontic care when she heard an advertisement for Georgia School of Orthodontics’ Purple Heart Smile program.
“We were driving down the road, like the day after an appointment, and it was on the radio — ‘If you have a Purple Heart, you may qualify for our Purple Heart Smile,’” White said. “I was like, ‘What?’ I called (my husband) and said, ‘Rick, the Georgia School of Orthodontics has a program for Purple Hearts, and they’re giving Purple Heart recipients’ children free braces.”
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rick White, a career serviceman who served as a bomber pilot with the Strategic Air Command and received a Purple Heart in 1995, couldn’t imagine such a program existed.
“I sort of didn’t believe it; I thought, ‘Ah, this is a gimmick,’” he said. “I called (GSO) and said, ‘My wife heard this on the radio, are you sure this is true?’ They said, ‘Yes, do you have a Purple Heart?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ They said, ‘Can you prove it?’ So I went home and took a photo of the certificate and my DD 214 and I texted it to them and they said, ‘You qualify.’ I said, ‘Wow.’”
Sixteen months later, the Whites’ 14-year-old daughter, Ericka, now has a full set of braces and undergoes routine orthodontic care at GSO, and her family hasn’t had to pay a dime.
She’s one of nearly two dozen patients GSO provides free orthodontics to as part of the program, which, just ahead of Memorial Day, is celebrating its 18-month anniversary.
“The idea of a Purple Heart program came up, and I thought, ‘What a wonderful way to reach some kids,’” said GSO Program Director Dr. Ricky Harrell. “I’m a former officer in the Army Reserves, and I know what the pay scale is. These folks put their lives on the line and become injured in the line of duty, so we thought this was a great way to give back to the military (personnel) who often go unnoticed unless there’s a crisis.”
According to Harrell, less than 1% of U.S. citizens have served in the military, largely because there’s no longer a draft.
“It’s all volunteer service now,” Harrell said. “(Because of that), for GSO, it’s a way to say, ‘We’re supporting you guys,’ and we can do it through provision of orthodontic care.”
Though orthodontic treatment is non-essential health care, the Purple Heart Smiles program makes a significant impact on patients who receive the care, Harrell said.
“Our typical treatment age is in early adolescence, and it’s a time when a child’s personality is forming and they’re starting to be very sensitive to criticism and evaluation by other peers,” Harrell said. “(A nice smile) is a tremendous confidence builder for young people, and as a private practitioner before I came (to GSO), I had parents who would bring their kids’ school pictures and say, ‘I could never get them to smile before we came to get orthodontic treatment.’ Then they would pull out the new pictures and say, ‘Look at them now, see what a difference this is?’
“Not just in terms of oral health, but in terms of psychosocial development, it is a huge benefit to kids, especially if they’re lacking a little bit in self-confidence.”
It’s not just patients the Purple Heart Smiles program is helping, though, said Army Staff Sgt. Rasheem Watson, whose daughter is in the program. Watson received a Purple Heart in 2010 after being blown off his truck by an IED — the roadside bomb was packed with 1,200 pounds of explosives — in Afghanistan.
“To come back home and feel like you’re not forgotten and feel like people really care about what you’re doing for the country (is important),” Watson said. “To have a program like this, it means a lot, it really does.”
GSO currently has $100,000 budgeted for the program, and with 21 current patients, the school is at about two-thirds capacity.
But Harrell said GSO plans to keep funding Purple Heart Smiles.
“It’s been a great program for us,” he said, “and these (servicemen) are the real deal.”
GSO has two campuses — one in Duluth and one in Sandy Springs. For more information about the program or how to apply, visit bracestoday.com.
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