More than 50 years ago, Shirley Harris needed convincing from a high school classmate to take an office manager position for a Del City dentist.
Today, Harris is recognized as one of the top women in dentistry nationwide as executive director of an Oklahoma City nonprofit that provides free dental care for those who need it most.
“My first day on the job in Del City, I left and said I wasn't coming back,” Harris said. “I didn't know it was a health issue when I started. I didn't know there were so many people in need.”
For the past 16 years, Shirley has served as executive director of Dentists for the Disabled and Elderly in Need of Treatment (D-DENT).
It's a program that teams with hundreds of dentists and organizations statewide to provide free dental education, general care and complete dental reconstruction to low-income families, uninsured elderly, veterans and the developmentally disabled.
Dental Products Report magazine named Harris to its list of the Top 25 Women in Dentistry 2013, an honor that places her among the national forerunners within the industry.
“I was really surprised,” Harris said. “It means that somebody is recognizing that this little organization is out there.”
In a small office in northwest Oklahoma City, Harris works as a facilitator between dental practices and people with severe oral needs. After a client submits paperwork for D-DENT's services, Harris pairs that person with a local charitable dentist.
Harris said after the state cut her budget completely two years ago, D-DENT has relied on two major fundraisers, a golf tournament and a casino night, and other donations to fund about 800 full-mouth restorations per year. That's a lot of new smiles, but considering the two- to three-year waiting list for D-DENT's help, Harris would love to help more people.
“I just wish there were a lot of money and a lot of volunteers,” she said.
Harris said her connection to those in need is what fuels her passion within D-DENT. She's the parent of a developmentally disabled daughter, a son who survived tongue cancer and another who was killed serving in the military.
Her volunteer hours at area nonprofits also put her in contact with potential clients — like Paul Gilliam, who was volunteering at a Masonic Lodge fundraiser in 2010 when he learned about D-DENT.
Gilliam, 48, a Blanchard resident, was missing the majority of his teeth. That, paired with his legal blindness, set his confidence back. Through D-DENT, Gilliam received oral surgery and dentures — a procedure he said would have cost up about $10,000.
“There's no way I could have done it. I had no insurance,” Gilliam said. “Now I have the confidence to get out more and speak publicly. It just totally changed my life.”
Harris said stories like Gilliam's are “the most exciting thing in the world.” Because dental care is often overlooked as a life essential, it's easier to prioritize other bills in front of fixing a smile. Years of oral neglect not only leads to health problems, but as with Gilliam, can change one's entire outlook.
“You look at a guy who changed his whole life,” Harris said. “That's what we find with most of these patients that we see.”
Kevin Henry, editor of Dental Products Report, said he wanted a diverse group when choosing the top 25 female dental minds in the nation.
Henry said Harris' contributions are key to the dental industry moving forward.
“A huge area in dentistry right now is, how do we help people who can't afford the dental health that they need?” Henry said. “We know that connection between oral health and overall health. You look at somebody like (Harris), who has done so much to help the needy, and it was a real no-brainer for us to honor her.”