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Illinois practice owner says dentistry is 'the best way I can give back'

May 06, 2015

By Michelle Manchir

Generosity honored: Dr. Randall Oliva, center, received a plaque from Safe Families in April for his generosity in donating dental care to children served by the nonprofit. Safe Families volunteers Becky Celenza, right, and Janessa Gustaveson presented him with the award at his practice in Park Ridge, Ill..
Park Ridge, Ill.  — After battling homelessness and other setbacks for months upon his arrival in the U.S. from Jamaica, Doniel Brown had last year for the first time found a home where he felt supported and safe. His high school grades were improving and he was impressing fellow churchgoers in this suburb northwest of Chicago with his motivational talks.

But Mr. Brown still needed to see a professional for one nagging issue in his life: a toothache.

Dr. Randall Oliva was quick to raise his hand to help.

Dr. Oliva, a 1982 Loyola University Chicago graduate and a general dentist for more than 30 years who owns his own practice in Park Ridge, is a volunteer with Safe Families, a Chicago-based non profit in which families open their homes to care for children whose parents are in crisis.

Mr. Brown, now 20, had come to Illinois in 2013 to stay with relatives and work.  The transition was volatile, and the young man, who enrolled in high school, ended up with nowhere to go until Scott and Jennifer Reed, who are hosting him through Safe Families, invited him to their Skokie , Ill. home in early 2014.

Taking it in: Safe Families employees surprised Dr. Randall Oliva at his practice in April with a plaque to thank him for his generosity in donating dental care to children served by the nonprofit.
Dr. Oliva, his wife, Janice, and their two young children had once opened their home to a child in need of care with Safe Families. And, a handful of times before meeting Mr. Brown, Dr. Oliva offered dental care through Safe Families – receiving no reimbursement — to children who needed it.
But Mr. Brown, largely because of his age and tremendous likability, stood out. At 19, visiting Dr. Oliva's practice last year was his first visit to a dentist. Having grown up chewing raw sugar cane and doing little other than washing his mouth out with water to care for his teeth, Mr. Brown said he was more than a little nervous to get his mouth checked out, especially upon seeing the spread of devices and tools beside Dr. Oliva's chair.

"I said 'you have to put me to sleep or something,'" Brown recalled saying. Now, he can laugh about his initial hesitation.

On his first visit to Dr. Oliva's office the two mostly just talked about what he should expect as the two continued to meet, Mr. Brown said.
"I had to explain to him what I do, what a dentist does and why he was having problems and how we were going to fix it," Dr. Oliva said. "I told him it would be fine."

Soon after the initial conversation, Mr. Brown learned the cause of his toothache — he had 15 cavities.
"He said he was going to save my teeth," Brown said, and, now, a half dozen visits later, Brown said his teeth are much healthier.

The cost of fillings and cleanings amounted to several thousand dollars, fees that Dr. Oliva waived in full.

"I said, 'Let's do everything. Take care of all his needs. Let's just do it right, do what we can," Dr. Oliva said.

Bright smiles: Doniel Brown, right, shows off his smile with a member of his host family, Jennifer Reed, in Skokie, Ill..
These days, Mr. Brown said it no longer hurts to eat his favorite foods – including fresh fruits and cheese pizza – and he's learned the correct techniques for brushing his teeth.

The pair has also cultivated a friendship. Mr. Brown is well known in Dr. Oliva's practice, where the front desk staff used to bring him warm towels to embrace when his visits occurred during Chicago's relentlessly cold winter months that felt especially jarring to Brown, accustomed to Jamaica's Caribbean climate.

Dr. Oliva said he admires his patient for his positive attitude and ability to smile with such frequency after enduring hardships. And while Mr. Brown frequently offers favors to pay him back for his dental work, Dr. Oliva said there's only one proposal he plans to take Brown up on: A summer barbecue featuring Brown's famous jerk chicken recipe.

"He's just a happy, happy person. How he got here – I don't know if I would be as happy," Dr. Oliva said.

Dr. Oliva, who was honored by Safe Families in April with a plaque for his generosity, said assisting Mr. Brown was just "a way I can give back."

"God has given us each a gift and we're supposed to take that gift and use it to help other people," Dr. Oliva said. "Dentistry is my gift and it's the best way I can give back. You can always give money, but you should be using your gift also to help."

Mr. Brown, meanwhile, is on track to earn his high school diploma next year – he said he is on the school honor roll -- and recently started a job at a grocery store near his host family's house. He hopes to get an agriculture job or attend college.

No matter what his next step is, he wants to continue to see Dr. Oliva as long as he can, he said.

"He's a really good guy," Mr. Brown said, adding "as long as I'm in this country, he's my dentist."