Ann, who is now middle-aged, has always had crooked teeth. She has felt self-conscious and embarrassed about her less-than-perfect smile. Ann is also a recovering drug addict, with a volatile past that included jail time, unhealthy relationships with men, and a deep lack of self-esteem.
Last year, Ann found her way to a faith-based local nonprofit that runs a residential recovery program for women suffering from addiction. The organization’s mission is “to breathe life and hope into women who have been marginalized, demoralized and traumatized,” and to “equip them for a future of love and prosperity.”
Part of equipping these women for a brighter future includes a special partnership they have with Goodwill Manasota. Once the women in the program are approved to work, they are given the opportunity for employment at Goodwill. As their Career Development Facilitator (CDF), I meet with the women weekly at their residence to provide Job Connection services and support in a safe and confidential group setting.
These women receive more than just the job search basics, like how to apply online, write a resume, and practice interview skills. They share their stories and their struggles, their fears and their dreams. They begin to think about where they came from, where they are today, and where they are going.
In many cases, the idea of goal-setting is a foreign concept and the vision of a future different than the painful reality of the past can be very hard to grasp. The typical response to a question like, “Where do you see yourself five years from now?” is often no more than a wide-eyed stare. Their main focus and goal is just getting through one more day without a setback or another failed attempt at sobriety. These women learn to see their addiction as a disease, rather than a sign of weakness and worthlessness, and their main challenge lies in accepting that they have value.
In Ann’s case, she loved to imagine what it would be like to smile without feeling ashamed of her overlapping, yellowed and decayed teeth. In fact, when I first told her about the positions we had open at Goodwill on the sales floor, she reluctantly replied, “But I don’t want to smile at people because my teeth are so bad.”
As a CDF, my goal is not just to place a customer in employment but to also give them tools that will help them be successful in the long run. So I told Ann that at Turning Points—one of the many agencies with which we collaborate-- you could receive a free dental consultation. I urged her to make an appointment there and she did.
Shortly after that, Ann was hired at Goodwill. She continued to attend my weekly Job Connection classes at the program residence on Tuesdays, if she wasn’t working. While at the house one day, I learned that she was having all of her teeth pulled and was going to be fitted for dentures. I can only imagine that having 22 teeth removed at one time, and not being able to take medication for pain, could not have been easy.
I sometimes check in at the store, when Ann is on break, to see how she’s doing now that she is no longer in my group and also to check on the progress of her dentures. She keeps me up to date. The anticipation of seeing herself smile with a full set of straight teeth brings tears to her eyes every time she talks about it.
Last week, Ann was in the Job Connection and shared that she had just come from a dental appointment. It was her final fitting before she gets her new dentures. Again, as she told me about it, her eyes filled with joyful tears ... and so did mine.
What struck me the most about that last conversation was not just Ann’s excitement over the fact that her dream of smiling for the first time in her life with straight teeth was about to come true. It was what she said at the end, and the sense of pride and accomplishment that exuded from her, as she hugged me on the way out the door. “Ms. Pavitra, I paid for them MYSELF! No one can tell me it was because of them, or that I owe them something. I paid for them MYSELF.”
Ann's story is another example of how lives can be changed through the power of work, in ways we may never know. Now that’s something to smile about.