The word “hero” means many different things to many different people. When deciding who was going to be our first ever Houndstooth Hero we wanted to be sure that the individual possessed three very important characteristics: integrity, humility, and most obviously, kindness. With that being said, the person we chose encompasses these three characteristics, and so many more, that make him beyond fit to be a Houndstooth Hero. After several phone calls, text messages, and e-mails were exchanged, it became clear to us that we had made the right decision. So let us introduce you to the man of the hour: Marco Gargano.
Marco is a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He is originally from Hot Springs, Arkansas, and he proudly identifies as “a first generation American and the first in [his] family to attend college.” Marco is an economics major through the Fulbright Honors College with a minor in chemistry (we would like to point out that chemistry is a class that most people pray to get through and never see again, and he studies it voluntarily). He also serves as an SI instructor for chemistry 1 and 2. On top of his impressive school load, he serves as the current Vice President, or “External Lieutenant Commander,” of Sigma Nu Fraternity. Although all of this is incredible, what really drew our attention to Marco was his passion for helping children develop a healthy, beautiful, and natural smile. As an aspiring dentist, Marco is a member of the pre-dental society and volunteers as a dental assistant at WelcomeHealth, a local clinic that provides free care to underprivileged patients. However, on top of all of these good deeds, Marco has done even more to really secure the title of Houndstooth Hero.
Marco is the Founder and Executive Director of Natural Teeth, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that works to “promote dental health through education and philanthropy.” One aspect of Natural Teeth is an education aspect that involves traveling to various schools around Northwest Arkansas to teach kids their “Superhero Program.” The Superhero Program encourages children to become superheroes by defeating the bad guys: Plaque and Acid. They do this by learning how to brush, floss, and eat healthy foods. Marco believes that by giving the children a mission, rather than simply giving a lecture, they are retaining the knowledge. Marco also revealed that Natural Teeth will be expanding the Superhero Program into both Central Arkansas and Louisiana within the next few months. They are also currently piloting Natural Ambassadors, a subsidiary program of Natural Teeth that works with juniors/seniors in high school who are highly interested in dentistry. The program will teach the students the leadership skills necessary in order to reach out to elementary schools within their community so that they, too, can teach the Superhero Program. They'll also be launching a new, modified Superhero Program that will allow them to work with children in special-education. The other aspect of Natural Teeth is philanthropy. They receive donations in order to help provide dental supplies and resources to underprivileged students who may not have immediate access to what they need in order to keep that natural smile Marco is striving for. Our favorite quote from Marco on the subject is this: “The reality of society is quite sad with how many children don’t have consistent access to even just a toothbrush.” We agree with you, Marco, and that’s why we greatly appreciate what you’re doing.
Before we go any further with this story, let’s back this train up and tell you guys how Natural Teeth came about in the first place.
Believe it or not, good things can come out of your mind wandering while you’re supposed to be focusing on a lecture (probably more for Marco than us, but you get the gist). One day, while Marco was sitting in a Chemistry class that he had already aced three tests in, he was seriously contemplating why he had chosen to one day become a dentist. After some thought, he came to the conclusion that it was the smiles that meant so much to him, but he was still wondering what made smiles so great.
“There are fake smiles out there, like when you're taking prom photos and your mom tells you to smile for the 500th time, but there are real smiles, genuine smiles, smiles that simply come... naturally. The name Natural Teeth started to form in my head, because not only does it represent the natural smiles that represent the brightest of moments in life, but it also represents the idea that the person who is smiling has a healthy smile full of real teeth.”
Shortly after Marco realized it was a natural smile that meant so much to him, Marco wanted to know what he could do to help people gain a natural smile right now, not seven or so years from now when he matriculates to and graduates from dental school. This is where some very important people in Natural Teeth’s history come into play. Marco contacted a longtime friend named Jeffrey Kerst who, at the time, was a freshman at the LSU school of dentistry and had recently done a community service project where he had taught children in schools the correct way to brush their teeth. Jeffrey sent Marco a two-page document that was used as a sort of script for the project. The script basically emphasized something along the lines of “there’s magic in your smile.” Marco used this script, along with outside resources, to brainstorm ideas for what he now considers the backbone of Natural Teeth: The Superhero Program and Volunteer Guide. This is one of the reasons why Marco considers Jeffrey a co-founder of Natural Teeth, but the man is modest, and according to Marco, “doesn’t like to take credit or titles” (but we see you Jeffrey, we see you). Soon after an extensive summer of brainstorming in 2016, out came 16 pages of “everything you need to know” about Natural Teeth, a guide that would soon be used to help over a thousand students gain a natural, beautiful smile.
“I remember staying up until 1-2 in the morning just typing away on my laptop at the Superhero Program, trying to teach myself how to design NaturalTeeth.org, or filling out the corporate paperwork. Truth be told, I cried like a baby when I received the letter in the mail that Natural Teeth had officially received 501(c)(3) status (partially from excitement and partially from sleep deprivation).”
After lots of hard work and dedication, Natural Teeth is now a fully functioning being (which is honestly more than most of us can say for ourselves). There is a tight-knit board of directors, more than 40 general volunteers (consisting of a graphic designer, merchandise team, and finance team), and their "Natural Partners".
Here is the team that makes the dream work:
Founder and Executive Director: Marco Gargano
Director of Operations: Jeffrey Kerst
Director of Expansion: Brenden Manley
Director of Media Relations: Jessica Sonnentag
Director of Volunteers: Mackenzie Powers
Oral Health America
POH Oral Health Products
Louisiana State University School of Dentistry
Northwest Arkansas Community College
First Community Trust
With the help of everyone above, Natural Teeth managed to impact the smiles of 1,500 children in their first six months of existence. Now, due to their new partnerships with both Louisiana State University School of Dentistry and Northwest Arkansas Community College, they're on track to teach over 10,000 little superheroes by summer 2017. In a world filled with so much hate and negativity, it can seem like a chore to show kindness. That is why we have so much appreciation for people like Marco and his team; they are the people who take an idea and use their talent and compassion to turn it into something much bigger. They are the people who make a difference.
So, now you guys are probably seeing just as clearly as we did why Marco is our first Houndstooth Hero. He definitely portrays the characteristics we first talked about: integrity, humility, and kindness. And we hope that, if nothing else, his kindness warms your heart. Everybody could use a little of that these days!