It all began, J. Randall Evans recalls, with the women who talked from behind their hands.
Evans, Maryland's secretary of economic and employment development, was touring the state to meet people in Project Independence, a job training program for welfare recipients.
At a stop in Hagerstown, Evans noticed that the women he met held their hands to their mouths and seldom smiled. "After a while, I had to ask: Why are these people mumbling in their hands?" he said.
The women told him they were embarrassed by their teeth, decayed and wrecked by neglect. But Medicaid paid for only basic emergency care. The bridgework and other procedures necessary to mend their smiles cost thousands of dollars, well beyond their means.
Moved by the women he met, Evans asked Gov. William Donald Schaefer if the state could help them fix their teeth. The result is a year-old partnership between DEED and the dental school at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, where dental students work on Project Independence clients for a one-time, $10 fee.
Everybody wins, says Dr. Gary Colangelo, who oversees the program.
The women receive dental care they could not otherwise afford. "We're fortunate in that, first of all, we need the patients," he added. "The students don't have to be paid and our costs are paid by a $75,000 grant from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene."
While dental schools throughout the nation often provide low-cost care, the UMAB program is the first in the country designed specifically to boost the self-esteem of clients in a welfare-to-work program. The NBC "Today" show is to feature it tomorrow.
Self-esteem is something of a Project Independence buzzword. But better smiles may give prospective employees more than just a good feeling about themselves, said Dr. Ed Grace, a dentist and behavioral scientist. It may actually make it easier for them to find jobs.
"Research shows that people always look at the face, and in the face, they always look at the mouth and eyes," Grace said. "It has a lot of significance."
Grace thinks the women in Project Independence who have received dental work will have more success finding work than those who have not. To test that theory, he will follow the employment histories of both groups.
Studies tracking the link between physical attractiveness and wages have been made, Grace said, but he knows of no research focused specifically on the mouth's appearance.
Anecdotal evidence for Grace's theory can be found in the case of Wanda McCray, a 35-year-old mother of eight who found her first job through Project Independence.
In November 1989, McCray's husband, Aaron, could not work as an independent trucker because of a back injury. The couple applied for welfare assistance and a social worker told McCray about Project Independence.
"I didn't know anything I could do," she recalls now. "Deep in my heart, I knew I could get a job, but I didn't think I had any skills."
Project Independence provided McCray with training, while UMAB students cleaned and X-rayed her teeth, pulling two.
Today, McCray's shy smile still shows two missing teeth on the left side. She hasn't had her bridgework done yet because she doesn't want to miss time from her job as a medical receptionist in Dundalk.
Poised and self-assured, McCray seems as if she would have little need for Project Independence, with its emphasis on basic job skills and self-esteem. But when she first started in the program, she said, she was overwhelmed by the idea of finding a job.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, when I first started Project Independence, my self-esteem was a 1. I didn't think I could get up to go the classes," she said. "I would say it's a 10 1/2 now."
Times are still hard for the McCray family, but her salary of $6.25 an hour helps cushion them during the lean times in her husband's business. It also gives her something to dream about -- a home of her own and, one day, a college education.
"I'm not where I used to be, but I'm still a long way from where I want to be," McCray said.
One drawback to the dental program is that it serves only those clients who can travel easily to the UMAB campus. But the program eventually will be expanded to the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland.