Dr. Rael Bernstein's office is not your typical orthodontia practice.
Pop music throbs from the speakers, portable video games line one wall, parents help themselves at a latte machine and the whole place is decked out with enough animal print for a zoo.
Beyond the flamboyant decor, something else was unique on a recent day as rows of children patiently let staff work on the braces pulling their teeth into order.
For one of them, the family won't have to pay a thing.
"With this economy, it's not braces or a car, it's braces or food on the table for many families," Bernstein said.
Braces are a rite of passage and a parent's dread. Those crooked smiles, as cute as they are, can cost thousands to fix. That's not possible for many parents.
But since 2010, Bernstein has donated $84,000 worth of orthodontic treatments to 14 children through Smiles for a Lifetime, a national nonprofit founded in 2008 that helps children whose families can't afford braces.
He's also begged, bartered and convinced other dentists and specialists to donate more than $20,000 worth of dentistry, oral surgery and other care.
Bernstein said he's motivated because braces changed his life. He said that as a teen growing up in Johannesburg, he hated to smile because it would expose his gap-filled set of crooked teeth.
Braces "changed my personality," he said.
He went to school in New York and about 10 years ago opened a practice on Montgomery Drive in Santa Rosa. With three offices in Sonoma County — each with safari decor inspired by his homeland — Bernstein two years ago started a local chapter of the nonprofit.
He established a board of directors with local teachers, social workers and dentistry professionals. In gut-wrenching essays, children describe the pain and embarrassment of their crooked, misshapen and missing teeth.
"You read about what these poor kids go through," Bernstein said. "The dental need is one thing, but the humanity need is a whole other thing."
"So many of the children talk about a lack of confidence and how they don't want to smile because they're embarrassed," said board member Andi Reese Brady of Santa Rosa, who learned about the program when Bernstein treated her children. "That can carry on into adulthood."
One teenage girl with a child of her own appeared to be missing teeth but X-rays showed the teeth had just never descended. In her essay, she worried that she would be overlooked for jobs because of her appearance.
Austin Crowder's teeth were too many and too big. Plus, the 16-year-old junior at Cloverdale High School said, his incisors were too high.
"It looked like I had vampire teeth," Crowder said. He aspired to get involved in theater, but he didn't feel comfortable with his teeth on stage.
His mother Judy Conner said she knew her son's teeth were inhibiting him. "I knew what he could be capable of when he smiled and came out of his shell," she said.
But at the time she worked as a pre-school teacher and her health insurance covered only a fraction of the cost. Also, Conner was battling breast cancer, a condition that further stretched her finances.
"Everybody wants to say I can provide everything my child needs and wants, but that's not a reality," Conner said.
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