Back in 2009, I visited Aperture Gallery in New York City with my friend Sheri to see Intended Consequences—a photography exhibit by Newsweek photojournalist Jonathan Togovnik. The images were magnificent and revealed the most beautiful, colorful women and children. It was the narrative that accompanied these photos that profoundly motivated me to want to help the women and children I saw captured in those photographs. Even more impressive was the narrative that accompanied the photos.
Their stories were profound: incredible women having endured such pain yet also filled with hope and promise. Their expressions revealed the love they shared for their children—the same children who were direct, intended consequences of the horrific violence these women had endured. The love was there, but they needed more.
It was this exhibit that profoundly motivated me to help the women and children of Rwanda. The same women and children I saw so wonderfully captured in those photographs.
Over a cup of coffee on the West Side, I chatted with Jonathan and his partner Jules Shell about supporting Foundation Rwanda (FR) and helping the victims of rape—both women and children—to live a dignified life and get the education they so deserved, which was no longer available to them.
We planned an event to let people know about FR’s great work and build awareness for the Intended Consequences exhibit. It proved a huge success: we raised both significant funds and a loyal base of supporters.
Soon after that meeting, I had the privilege to join my friends in Rwanda and meet the people affected: women just like you and me, and yet with so little opportunity to make strides and provide for their children. Moms, entrepreneurs, women who wanted to learn, grow and build a business. Their dreams were shattered but their hopes still so strong. We spend time with and learned from them. We left knowing that we had to help. We would be back, unable to forget what we saw and knowing there was work for us to do.
A simple yet profound need for the survivors was to smile again—in some ways literally: many women had their teeth knocked out when raped, and their smiles taken away. For 17 years they had spent years hiding behind their hands, always reminded of that horror, unable to overcome the pain physically and emotionally.
We met Agathe, who told us a deeply moving story. She was raped, and her husband and family killed. Her teeth were violently removed—by machete. While Agathe had made strides and her life had improved, expressing happiness was not possible—she literally couldn’t smile. Her dream was to smile, sing, and show her true feelings without hiding behind her hand.
Recognizing this need, Dr. Levine and his staff began to work on her molds back in NY, using the information sent to him. There is a very small number of dentists in Rwanda for its some 11 million people. Under Dr. Levine’s guidance, the laboratory sculpted teeth, and made her a beautiful denture. Two years to the date of our first visit, we arrived back in Rwanda with a suitcase to hand-deliver her smile.
We worked out of a local dentist office—the dentist to President Kagami, in fact. We surprised Agathe with our visit. Jules Shell arranged for her visit to the office. When she saw us—she could not believe her eyes. Her hand quickly covered her mouth—but you know she was smiling beneath that. When Dr. Levine and his team placed her smile into her mouth, her life truly changed.
She lit up. Her skin glowed. She cried and began to sing a church hymn that she sang at church before the horrific act that robbed her of so much. She began touching and playing with my long blonde hair, saying how she did not know how to thanks us. She sang more songs from her choir days and smiled wide with pride and love in her eyes. When asked the first thing she wanted to do when she returned home, she immediately replied, ” I want to go to the man that did this to me and smile at him.” She is a warrior. A woman filled with hope.
As Agathe’s gratitude and love filled the room, the GLO™ Good Mission—to enable more people to smile—came to life. While I am happy to be in the beauty and smile business, it is especially meaningful to give that to people who need it most. Our aim to help more people to smile truly transforms lives, give people hope and the ability to share their deepest feelings. Our efforts help people recognize their own self worth.
Following the success of Agathe’s smile, we set up three small clinics to screen, deliver dental tools and education, and treat urgent care cases. Local families—moms and children in hand—quickly lined up and expressed gratitude for the services. They received treatment and learned how to take care of their smiles, have a healthy mouth and what foods to eat or avoid.
Today, Agathe holds sessions in her village on tooth brushing, flossing, what not to eat, and how to care for your smile. She is a pioneer and an entrepreneur, with a business selling fruits and vegetables. She smiles every second she can.