By Sam Bojarski
Before founding the Unspoken Smiles Foundation, Jean Paul Laurent was a troublemaker in school.
Driven by a desire to fit in, the Port-au-Prince native got kicked out of high school in his second year, for bullying. Lacking a certificate of good conduct, Laurent may not have received a second chance at an education. But his father Jean Felix Laurent, a school principal, eventually helped him get accepted into Centre de Formation Classique, a private school.
“To this day, I’ve never gotten into trouble. I completely shifted my life from being a bully to being very positive, but still with the focus on keeping people happy,” Laurent said, about the experience.
Through the nonprofit Unspoken Smiles, Laurent has made a positive difference in the lives of more than 7,000 children throughout the world, teaching them how to maintain proper oral health. The organization, founded in 2014, has already earned recognition from organizations like the United Nations and Clinton Foundation.
Unspoken Smiles’ global scope has also earned Laurent a role as a UN special consultant, where he provides advice and written statements on social and economic conditions in various countries, when requested. Laurent is also the recipient of the President Obama Lifetime Achievement Award for volunteer service. This July, he became a TEDx organizer, giving people who don’t have a voice a platform to spread their ideas.
While Unspoken Smiles serves children in eight countries, its work is intricately tied to Haiti. In many ways, it has become harder for children there to maintain a healthy smile.
“In every single school, you have merchants selling candies outside the school and inside the school. So there’s a heavy consumption of sugar, and then the thing is it’s not just the consumption, it’s the frequency of it. It’s like a heavy frequency, that could then cause those major cavities,” said Laurent, adding that many children go years without ever seeing a dentist.
In 2004, at the age of 21, Laurent relocated to the United States with his mother, father and five siblings. His uncle, who was already living in the States, had obtained a green card for his father and the rest of the family. The Laurents first settled in West Haverstraw, New York, before moving to Spring Valley.
Gabens Laurent witnessed the determination his older brother Jean Paul brought, first to his education, then to Unspoken Smiles.
“He went to school, he was very focused, he was very determined, and he didn’t take no for an answer, although learning English was a struggle for him at first. But he kept going at it,” said Gabens, of Spring Valley.
Jean Paul would go on to attend New York University with the goal of becoming a dentist, earning a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene in 2011. Six years later, In 2017, he earned a master’s in public administration from Columbia University, after starting Unspoken Smiles.
But a visit to Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake first planted the idea for Unspoken Smiles in his mind. While assisting children at a camp in Petionville, he noticed abnormal levels of dental deterioration.
“There was a huge need, 90 percent of the kids that I saw there had medium to aggressive levels of infection in their mouth,” said Laurent, 37, who now resides in Harlem.
The idea for Unspoken Smiles was born. Jean Paul had assistance along the way, including from his brother Gabens, who helped brainstorm ideas and craft a mission statement in the nascent stages.
“He was persistent, because he met a lot of people who questioned the foundation. A lot of people would tell him it will never work, this idea will never work. But he never gave up,” Gabens said. “Basically, he dedicated his life to this foundation.”
Jean Paul eventually won a fellowship from The Resolution Project in 2013, which provided seed funding for a pilot program that began in Jacmel. After witnessing the program’s impact in pictures, volunteers from other countries began reaching out, asking about how to implement the same model.
In a departure from other programs that send dentists from developed countries, Jean Paul said Unspoken Smiles empowers local dentists to serve their communities.
Unspoken Smiles now employs 51 fellows, all minority women, who run school-based programs in eight countries ‒ Haiti, India, Romania, El Salvador, Guatemala, Iraqi Kurdistan, Dominican Republic and the U.S. Fellows educate students on how to maintain proper oral health and build lifelong dental hygiene habits. Most fellows have been teaching virtually since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a model which the organization is looking to scale up, according to Jean Paul.
“Many of those kids have existing cavities and infections that need to be treated. Because most of those fellows are dental students or future dentists, they will now be able to provide treatments for those kids free of charge,” Jean Paul said of the school programs.
The women in the fellowship program, most of them between the ages of 17 and 35, receive training in dentistry from mentors throughout the world, and the experience prepares them to become oral health care workers in their communities.
Marie Victoire Alexis, 24, has been working for a dentist in her hometown of Port-au-Prince for more than five years and plans to enter the field herself one day. Her employer encouraged her to apply for the fellowship, and while Alexis hasn’t started yet, she got accepted earlier this year, before COVID-19 arrived in Haiti.
“There are so many people in Haiti that really need dentistry help, and since it’s so expensive, not everybody can afford it,” Alexis said.
“I will be able to help (people) know the importance of having great teeth and how it is so important to see the dentist. And in the future, who knows, I might even open a clinic,” she added.
Unspoken Smiles fellows receive financial assistance, recommendation letters and other forms of aid, empowering them to pursue further education. Jean Paul emphasized the need to bring more minorities into dentistry, a field that has long suffered from a lack of diversity. For example, as of 2015, 3.8 percent of American dentists were Black, while 5.2 percent were Hispanic, far lower than the representation of these groups in the overall population.
The goal of Unspoken Smiles, Jean Paul said, is to build the world’s largest community of dentistry fellows, all of whom will be women. Unspoken Smiles relies on individual and organizational donors to fund not only the fellows, but also dental education programs and oral care supplies for children worldwide. By early next year, Jean Paul said he hopes to have rolled out a merchandise line consisting of T-shirts and toothbrushes, to give fundraising efforts a further boost.
“Every time I follow him he inspires me,” said Alexis, who became familiar with Jean Paul’s work with Unspoken Smiles through social media. “He inspires me to be someone better, and he inspires me to serve others better and put others’ health before my own,” she also said.
For Jean Paul himself, his experiences getting expelled from school compelled him to take his education seriously. But his return to Haiti after the earthquake inspired a life of public service.
“Everyone’s lifetime has something that can lead them to do something. So for some people it can be a death in the family that can drive them toward activism. But for me it was the earthquake that really brought me from my ideas from tragedy to activism,” he said.