One hundred years ago, what is now Children’s Dental Services (CDS) had its origin in the Minneapolis Health Department as the Southtown Children’s Clinic, established to provide medical care for orphans. On Sept. 26, staff and supporters of CDS celebrated its centenary and the upgrading of its 728 East Hennepin office, known as the Dr. John Williams Specialty Clinic, with a party in the clinic’s parking lot. There were speeches, refreshments, and a “dental-floss cutting” to open the $1.2 million expansion.
CDS Executive Director Sarah Wovcha recalled that at the time of her hiring in 2000, “We barely had our own tiny clinic in a section of the Minneapolis Community and Technical College. The first board president, Bryan Nelson, told me, ‘Sarah, a lot of things in life can wait, but a child is not one of them.’”
She reminded the audience that the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic killed more than 20 million people worldwide, including 700,000 Americans, leaving thousands of orphans without health care. She added, “Today we’ve evolved into an organization that’s for not just Minneapolis but for the entire state, targeting immigrants, refugees, special-needs kids, and pregnant women. I’m so proud to be a part of being boots on the ground and responding to the needs that come to us in the community.”
Joseph Lally, executive director of the Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation, congratulated the clinic staff, and said, “The clinic’s namesake, Dr. John Williams, was a quiet force for making dental care a reality for people in need, and I think that he would be very pleased with this and that his efforts continue today” He said the Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation has been a strong partner with CDS. He recognized other project funders, including the Otto Bremer Foundation, the Minnesota Historical Society, Northeast Bank, Surdyk’s, Macalester College, Running Aces, ALM Design Studio, Electric Machinery Company and the Patterson Foundation.
Minneapolis Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant noted the long affiliation with CDS, saying, “In the 1990s, as part of an overall shift to provide services to community organizations rather than directly by the Health Department, CDS was formed as a non-profit. For the past 25 years or more, we have continued that original spirit of partnership. Recognizing the disparity and the need to provide access to oral health services has been the impetus to that longstanding relationship between the HS and CDS. In partnership over the years, we’ve been able to provide quality services to children experiencing poor oral health who are uninsured or underinsured.”
Sara Franz, outreach director for Senator Amy Klobuchar, read a message from the senator, who wrote, “Congratulations on this monumental accomplishment and thank you for providing exceptional and affordable oral care for children and families for a century. You have selflessly served with unwavering dedication. CDS has been providing care for youth and pregnant women in our state, and is the only organization fully dedicated to outreach in helping children and pregnant women.”
Dr. John McKay Williams was a standout football player at the University of Minnesota and a National Football League offensive lineman from 1968 through 1979. After retiring, Williams received his D.D.S. degree from the University of Maryland Dental School and began a dental practice in Minneapolis lasting 35 years. Williams died in 2012, at the age of 66. Wovcha remarked, “Dr. Williams was on Children’s Dental Services board of directors when I was hired, and my original mentor. Even though he was incredibly busy in the community, participating on the Metropolitan Airport Commission, assisting in forensic identification after 9/11, and so many other things, he was always generous in sharing his time, expertise and friendship with me. I actually had no idea how famous, connected and busy he was until I read his obituary. That is just the kind of guy he was…humble and quiet, but a force in improving health and community.”
Barbara Butts Williams, Capella University Dean Emeritus of Business and wife of the late Dr. Williams said, “When I was thinking about the hundredth anniversary of CDS, I was wondering, ‘What would John say, if he were here?’ Even though his name is recognized on the building, I think he would say, ‘We wouldn’t have gotten this far without having an excellent staff, the dental hygienists, the dental assistants, the leadership and all the other health professionals who have helped make this organization great.’ . . . No system is perfect, no organization is perfect, and nobody is perfect, and he understood that, and so his commitment to the organization and the community was to do whatever he could to continue on the path to making this the great organization that it is today.”
CDS established the second of its two permanent clinics (its headquarters is at 636 Broadway St.) at the East Hennepin Avenue site in 2015. The building had been home to a video production company and before that, a Volkswagen repair shop. Shortly after the clinic moved in, the asphalt parking lot was replaced, through a grant from the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization, with permeable pavers to reduce pollutant runoff into storm drains. The expanded clinic now has eight chairs, access for children in wheelchairs, and an enlarged garage that holds portable equipment and delivery vans.
Today CDS has over 100 staff members, including 11 dentists, and serves more than 37,000 patients each year out of its Minneapolis clinics and through portable dental services throughout the state in schools, Head Start centers, other locations, and homeless-care events.
Below: Cutting the ceremonial dental floss are Barbara Butts Williams (behind the scissors), Children’s Dental Services Executive Director Sarah Wovcha, and Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation Executive Director Joseph Lally. (Photo by Mark Peterson)