illustration of oral health

Denyze Gary changes lives.

Growing up in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Denyze was raised by a family that prized education, music and helping others. At 12, she moved to America, motivated by her parents to learn English and the U.S. Constitution. Graduating from NYU, she worked as a grant writer before returning to school to become a dental hygienist.

Her job with the SBH dental clinic is to care for the oral health of her patients. It’s a responsibility, she believes, that is about more than simply cleaning teeth, but about creating a bond with her patients.

“It means learning what’s going on in their lives – if they got married, had a baby, if someone in their family is sick,” she says. “This can all affect their oral health.”

This is particularly so, she believes, when it comes to her young patients. In too many cases, she says, their potential is threatened by the lack of encouragement they receive from their families and the school system.

“These are kids from dysfunctional families and they need someone who believes in them,” she says. “Many don’t feel they are worthy to go to college.”

She offers incentives for scholastic achievement, paying for gift cards and electric toothbrushes out of her own pocket. Yet, it only begins here.

Take the case of one young man who first came to the hospital’s orthodontics clinic at the age of 14, accompanied by his social worker. With his parents incarcerated since he was 10, he grew up in the foster care system, moving from one foster home to another. His life was filled with such uncertainty that he literally carried his possessions on his back, in his knapsack, distrusting his foster families. Denyze quickly surmised during his monthly orthodontics appointments that the teen was very bright, but lacked direction. When she asked him, “What do you plan to do with your life?” he shrugged and said, “Nothing.”

She recommended he read Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy Leagues, a book which chronicles the struggles and successes of a young African-American man from a crime-ridden section of Washington D.C. who rises to graduate from Brown University.

“The next time I saw him I asked him if he had read the book, and he said he had listened to the CD,” says Denyze.   “He very much reminded me of my son (who is in his senior year at Johns Hopkins University, with plans to become an orthopedic surgeon. Her daughter attends MIT). Only, he had no encouragement at school or at home. He tried to reconnect with his father and sisters, but they had no interest. It was really tough.”

When she asked him where he was going to college, he said emphatically, “I’m not going to college.” It was before and after his dental appointments that she started to convince him of the possibilities. She helped him write essays and found him a free SAT program.   When she told him that maybe he should consider Georgetown University, he looked at her like she was crazy. “Don’t aim for mediocrity,” she told him. “Go for it.   All they can say is no.”

Slowly, she got him to believe, just as she has with other young patients over the years – like the Columbia University student who was told by his guidance counselor during high school that he should become a barber, or the young woman who realized she needed to get away from the surroundings at home and now lives in a dormitory at NYU.

Months later, the young man returned to the dental clinic holding a fat envelope and wearing a bigger smile. From the envelope, he pulled out a letter and handed it to Denyze. It was his acceptance letter to Georgetown – he had received a full scholarship. “He gave me a hug and said, ‘Thank you for not making me a statistic.’”