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No Cape for Super Dentist, Just a Crown

The war against tooth decay is fought one mouth at a time.

A good brushing helps. Usually we fight the battle alone, but if the tide turns, we call in the mercenary. The dentist is a commando who brings in the heavy artillery--the hypodermic, the Sodium Pentothal, the drill.

These macho metaphors are offered in sympathy, or maybe guilt. Perhaps you caught the “Seinfeld” in which Jerry went one dentist joke too far. He was accused being an “anti-dentite.” Who among us has not felt the impulse?

There is something about pop culture that doesn’t love a dentist. M.D.s have dominated prime time since prime time began. The D.D.S. community has been relegated to sidekick roles, such as Bob Newhart’s old office neighbor back in the ‘70s. And consider the anti-dentite images on the big screen. Steve Martin’s sadist in “The Little Shop of Horrors” made us laugh. Laurence Olivier’s diabolical dentistry in “Marathon Man” made us shudder. A villain, at least, isn’t the butt of jokes.

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No, dentists don’t get to be heroes, not in Hollywood anyway. Cops, soldiers, lawyers and even reporters can be heroes. Why, even strippers, thieves and sports agents get a chance. Thousands of scripts are floating around the studios. Try to imagine an action thriller out there about a dentist who saves the world--something called “Root Canal,” say, starring Arnold or Clint or Bruce.

Dentists themselves either don’t seem to mind their unsexy image or maybe they just hide their feelings well. Out in the real world, however, some of them do what they can to save the world, one mouth at a time.

Consider the example of Robert Marias, a Burbank dentist who volunteers his time and skills to a variety of good works. If Marias were to inspire a movie, it might be called “Serv-a-Thon Man.”

But let’s not get carried away. The truth is, there are many men and women who will be donating their time to the second Serv-a-Thon fund-raiser on Saturday for the well-regarded Pacoima-based charity known as MEND, for Meet Each Need with Dignity.

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Marias, a volunteer at the agency for five years, will be working one of three chairs in MEND’s dental clinic, providing free exams for clients and scheduling appointments on a case-by-case basis. Other volunteers will be performing chores such as clothing distribution and sorting the tons of food collected in a campaign by postal workers.

The volunteers have also been turning to friends for monetary pledges. Last year, when MEND first adapted the concept of a walk-a-thon or bike-a-thon fund-raiser to the actual delivery of services, more than $39,000 was raised.

Marias was on the phone Friday, asking colleagues for pledges, when he took time out to discuss his work with MEND. Marias, who grew up in Van Nuys and now lives in Tarzana, had performed volunteer work with the St. Joseph Medical Center’s Children’s Dental Clinic and the Burbank Kiwanis went he received a solicitation from MEND five years ago. He decided to drop by.

“I was hardly impressed by the dental clinic. It was really just nuts and bolts,” he recalled. “But I was impressed by what else was going on in the building. . . . This was truly a grass-roots organization. And they get a lot of bang for the buck.”

Here, Marias said, it was obvious that most of the service provided and money raised directly benefited the needy. Marias signed on.

“There’s an expression in the Talmud: If you save one person, you save the world,” Marias said. “An individual can make a difference.”

MEND’s clients are often immigrants, legal and otherwise, as well as native-born Americans in need. These are people who in recent years have been blamed for society’s ills, inspiring reforms of both immigration and welfare policy. Marias worries that these reforms will overwhelm charitable agencies like MEND. It also makes volunteer work more important.

“Their teeth hurt like anybody else’s,” he said. “If I can help them out, make them more marketable, they can get a job and help themselves.”

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In his five years as a volunteer with MEND, Marias says he’s been afforded an eye-opening look at “the poorest of the poor” while visiting families who applied for MEND’S Christmas “adoption” program.

These visits, the dentist says, “were very sobering. Their places were as neat as a pin, but it’s a converted garage--and converted is being generous.” He remembers a family of three living in a 15-foot trailer.

Marias, who now serves on MEND’s board of directors, says he’s seen the charity’s efforts pay off. Some people who once came in search of help now come to help others.

But at the same time, he says, more and more people have been showing up at MEND’s door in search of help--one reason he worries that society’s safety net is becoming too weak. Some people may endorse “social Darwinism.”

“Maybe I’m an optimist,” Marias added, “but I think Angelenos can rise a little bit higher than that.”

Some people, of course, suggest that altruism is illusory--that people who donate time and effort and money to others are really just fulfilling some sort of self-interest. Not an original idea, but it still leaves me puzzled sometimes.

What does Dr. Marias get out of this? I didn’t ask. But he mentioned something about how he tries to get his children involved in MEND’s work as well. His daughter is 7, his son almost 5.

“I want to impress my kids that helping other people is the right thing to do, and it needs to be part of your life,” he explains. “It should be as natural as washing your hands.”

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Nice sentiment, Serv-a-Thon Man.

Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to him at The Times’ Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St. , Chatsworth, CA 91311, or via e-mail at scott.harris@latimes.com Please include a phone number.


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