2004 | Haiti | Age: 21
I moved to the U.S. from Haiti in 2004. I received a letter from the U.S. embassy stating that if I wanted to come here, I had to do it before my 21st birthday. My uncle had moved here about 20 years earlier, and he filed for my father and our family. So it had to be now or never because they wanted to close our old file. I was already through two years of university, and I had mixed feelings. I was fed up with the country and thought leaving was a good decision, but I didn’t know what to expect. I went with my parents to apply for my passport, as this would be my very first time traveling.
I brought my high school diploma, which means a lot to me because I received a very solid foundation, and it really prepared me for everything I’m doing now. The only problem was that I didn’t speak English. I arrived on a Friday, and on Monday my uncle took me to register for English classes. A month later, also at his suggestion, I applied for a job at Target. They called me in for an interview, and they even asked a manager who spoke Creole to translate for me. They liked my personality, that I smiled and was helpful, so they hired me and put me on the registers because I was very fast at math. That was my first job here, and it was a great experience.
I had been studying pre-med in Haiti, but I had to start over here. I had always wanted to be in a medical field, and after studying English for a year, I enrolled at a community college, and then I transferred to the NYU College of Dentistry to earn a Master of Dental Hygiene. I knew that it would be a lot more difficult to get into dental school as a minority since I didn’t have the people and the money behind me. I had to create my own path. When I started at NYU in 2010, the earthquake hit Haiti. A year later, I went back to volunteer my expertise at the camps that were still housing displaced people. I brought toothbrushes and toothpaste with me, along with the skills I had learned. For the first time I was seeing real cases of excessive tooth decay in children. The kids were so happy to see me, smiling, jumping all over me to get the toothbrushes. And I remember thinking, “Man, this is something I can see myself doing for the rest of my life.”
This was the first time I’d been back, and that’s also when I saw a different Haiti from the one I grew up in. So when I came back after the trip, I asked God to give me the path to help those children, and that’s how I came up with the Unspoken Smiles Foundation. “Unspoken” because I knew that behind each smile there is a story to be told, and those kids, despite living in horrible conditions, were still being kids. They were still smiling, and I wanted to help them live healthier lives. My professors were excited to help. People from other countries were asking how they could get involved. That’s when I realized that it’s not just a Haiti problem. So I wanted to turn this into a global movement - like Doctors Without Borders, but for dentistry.
In 2013 I competed at Harvard for the Resolution Project, a fellowship that provides seed funding and resources to entrepreneurs while they’re in school. I won that competition based on the idea behind Unspoken Smiles. It was the first time someone believed in me and thought my idea was worth pursuing. I thought I’d be the first dental hygienist to do something like this because usually these organizations are started by large dental corporations or dentists with lots of experience. So for me it was either go to dental school, become a dentist and make a lot of money, or take this path and change the world.
Education was always very important to me, and I didn’t know anything about running an organization. In order to be successful, effective and efficient, I knew that I had to learn the right skills, so I went on to get my MPA (Master of Public Administration). Columbia’s SIPA has the global aspect, which is what attracted me to this program. I already knew what I wanted from this program, which made it even more exciting. I used the classes to work on my projects.
Now I don’t want to go to Haiti just to do everything by myself. But I have local leaders, and I try to go there twice a year to go over everything they need and to bring supplies to areas that need it most. I also aim to focus on the other participating countries to make sure that I give each of those programs equal attention. We are now in 7 countries: India, Romania, Iraq (the Kurdish side of it), Guatemala, Colombia, El Salvador, and Haiti. In each of those countries we have one volunteer representative. Most of them are dentists who also want to help, and we empower them with resources and supplies, and in turn they commit their time to the organization to give us the jump start we need to raise capital and fully scale.
This year we launched a partnership with the Columbia work-study program. Now we’ll be able to hire students off campus, and they’ll work with us while the school pays them via the work-study program. We are also planning to launch a fellowship program, and the fellows will come from that work-study partnership as well. Next I’m transitioning full time to the organization and slowly raising funding to do that.
I don’t know where I would be now had I stayed in Haiti. Some of my close friends have passed away. My high school was completely destroyed. Even people who are brilliant and have master’s degrees sit in the street doing nothing. There are no jobs unless you’re in politics or your parents have money. It’s very difficult as a young man to break into that in Haiti. It’s equally hard for women because there’s a major trend for older men with money to offer young girls food, money, shopping for sexual favors. It’s a very big problem. And I really think that the fellowship program that we bring there will make a difference by creating careers of which people can be proud.
Everything I’ve done revolves around this idea.