Sra. Poskitt Helps Her Students Turn Trash into Smiles

Changing the world one smile — and one bottle — at a time
Dana meets Smile Train patients in Mexico

Dana Poskitt is a Spanish teacher at the International Polytechnic High School (IPOLY) in Pomona, CA. She is also the founder of Project Smile, a club where students turn their trash into smiles by donating the money they earn from redeeming their recyclables to Smile Train. Below, she shares how Project Smile started and how it got her students, school, and community fired up about the power they each have to do good.

It all began in 2008, at my sister's house. I was hanging out in her living room, perusing through a magazine, when, in the bottom-right corner, I saw an ad for Smile Train. Yes, it was 13 years ago and this memory is so vivid that I still remember that it was in the bottom-right corner of the magazine. It was a picture of a child with a cleft before and after surgery. No less evocative for me than the picture were the numbers: I could change a child's life this dramatically for $250.

Dana loads bags of recycling onto a truck
Dana with bags of recycling ready to be redeemed for smiles

It all came together then in a flash. In California, you get a full cash refund for the value of your recyclables, so I decided I would save up the money I collected from my recycling to change the life of one child in need of cleft surgery. I also placed a plastic box in my classroom for students to throw their recyclables into. Empty cans and plastic bottles trickled in for a few months, until a student randomly asked, "Señora Poskitt, what do you do with the money from the recycling?"

Smile Train patient in Peru holding a picture of herself before free cleft surgery
A Peruvian girl who received free cleft care from Smile Train holding a picture of herself before surgery. This is not the picture that was sent to Dana's class.

I showed them a picture of a child with a cleft and told them I was raising enough to fund the surgery this child needs to thrive through Smile Train. They jumped right on board! Those nickels and dimes really add up, and we hit my $250 goal in no time. Three months later, my students and I were amazed when Smile Train sent us a before-and-after photo of a girl in Peru who could now smile thanks to us.

Success Comes in Cans

Her story made this work personal for my students. Right then and there, they took ownership of this cause and started the Project Smile club to promote it more. Two years later, we had collected enough bottles and cans to fund two more cleft surgeries!

IPOLY student and Project Smile member with the recycling she collected for Smile Train
IPOLY student with all the recycling she collected for Smile Train

Since then, Project Smile has really taken on a life of its own. Many students get involved initially just to be in a school club… and then they attend the first meeting. They see photos and videos of children and families whose lives have been changed thanks to the work that Smile Train — and their fellow students — make possible. An hour later, they've decided to go all-in and get their families and communities involved, too. Project Smile has 90 members this year. When these 90 kids collect carloads of recycling in their communities, neighbors ask what's going on, then they, too, become excited to jump aboard and help as well.

To me, this is pure goodness. We're redeeming trash to save the planet and save the world one smile at a time.

Nuestro Viaje de Sonrisas

Dana and her students painting an operating room at SUMA in Mexico City
Dana with her husband, students, and Smile Train staff helping to paint a waiting room at our partner center SUMA in Mexico City

As a Spanish teacher, one of my greatest honors is taking students on trips to Europe and Latin America to see the language and culture they've been studying all year come alive. So when I learned about Journeys of Smiles, trips to meet Smile Train's patients and partners in the field, I thought, 'A chance to take my students abroad and help Smile Train? Sign me up!'

Dana interacting with Smile Train patients in Mexico
Dana interacting with Smile Train patients on her Journey of Smiles to Mexico

There was only one catch: These trips tend to be during the school year. But after meeting with some Smile Train staff members, they organized a summer Journey of Smiles to Mexico special for us! My five most interested students all found sponsors, and we were off to Mexico to see how the smiles get made.

Project Smile in Mexico
Project Smile in Mexico

It's no exaggeration to say that it was a life-changing experience for all of us. Something that hit me profoundly was the humble generosity of each member of the cleft team we visited: the families and the children, the nurses, speech therapists, doctors, surgeons, dentists, photographers, hosts, hotel managers… the heart behind every person's labor felt nothing other than supernatural. At one point, our team was in a large room in one of the hospitals, and arrangements had been made for a number of patients and their families to meet and speak with our team. Decorations and balloons filled the space. One family said, "We have always wanted to say thank you to those who helped our daughter. Now, here you are." That was enough to motivate me to do what I do for the rest of my days on earth.

Project Make the Whole World Smile During Difficult Times

That trip was in 2019. When COVID-19 began to complicate our club's efforts the following spring, I had no plans to slow down, but didn't know how the students would handle it. Well, let me tell you: They flourished. Project Smile had over 50 members then, and I was able to connect with many of their families during this time and form strong bonds with them. We talked a lot about how, scary and uncertain as the pandemic has been for us, we couldn't even imagine what it must be like for Smile Train's patients. The club decided to keep going so we could send our message to these children loud and clear: We are so grateful for your beautiful smile and your beautiful YOU!

Dana's husband picking up recycling
Dana's husband, Americo, picks up recycling for Project Smile

We decided that my students would drop off their bags of recycling at school or make appointments for me to drive by their homes to collect them from their yards. This work gave these kids the sense of purpose they needed in an uncertain time, and they dove in headfirst. We have kept this method up for this school year, as well — I still stop by houses on my way home from work or on weekends to retrieve these "golden" bags!

A neighbor collecting recycling for Project Smile
A neighbor collects his recycling to donate to Project Smile

Every day Project Smile continues is another day I am amazed at the difference every person can make. Project Smile and Smile Train teach my students that they matter, that no matter how much money you have, your actions truly can make a difference in the world.

Dana hugs a Smile Train patient in Mexico on her Journey of Smiles
Dana hugging a Smile Train patient during her Journey of Smiles

And while the Project may be over a decade old already, I think it's still just getting started! I want to spread it to other educators and schools, so their students and communities can likewise be touched by it — and make the world smile!

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