With a thriving dental practice in Fountain Valley and a job on the side teaching in the dental school at UCLA, Steve Underwood has all the trappings of professional success.
Still, the 47-year-old figures his life wouldn't be complete if it wasn't for his other job--the one that pays in the smiles of children and gratitude of their parents.
"I've had a very fortunate life," said Underwood, who directs the low-cost dental clinic of the Assistance League of Newport Mesa. "It's nice to be able to give something back."
Funded by the Assistance League through donations, auctions and bake sales, the Costa Mesa clinic serves about 1,800 children a year. All are students in Newport-Mesa Unified School District; most come from homes in which both parents work at low-paying jobs and so don't qualify for state or federal health programs such as Medi-Cal but can't afford insurance.
Underwood said he was introduced to the group, now the largest nonprofit dental clinic in the county, by colleagues years ago. By 1988, the California native had moved up to director, making administrative decisions as well as taking a turn at one of the five dental chairs once a week.
As are all seven dentists who work at the clinic, Underwood is paid a token amount--in his case, $6,000 a year.
"I get a lot of thank-yous," he said. "When somebody's patting you on the back all the time, it's hard to walk away."
Many of the kids have never seen a dentist before visiting the clinic, Underwood said. Some come with serious problems because of it.
"Some take 40 to 50 hours of chair time," he said.
It's not negligence but extreme poverty that leads to such serious problems, he said. "These families are struggling to put food on the child's plate, a roof over their heads and get them an education," he said. "Dentistry is not a priority."
Usually through school nurses, children find the clinic, which charges $6 to $15 for each visit.
"The kids are fabulous," Underwood said. "Most of our kids are under 10, and you'd be amazed how well-behaved they are. They seem so grateful. Just today, a boy came back to thank me."
The clinic shares a new two-story building on Fairview Street with other Assistance League programs, including a shop for donated clothes for students.
Inside, in an open white room, children squirm in a row of dental chairs. Radio hits from the 1960s and '70s filter over a sound system, drowned occasionally by the piercing whir of a drill.
The mood is upbeat and relaxed, somehow friendlier than a typical for-profit dental office. "Everybody's laid-back here," said office manager Melissa Rogers, a 12-year veteran of dental practices who started at the clinic a year ago. "I told my husband this is the first place where I just love coming to work."
Underwood, wearing a denim shirt and jeans, sits in a spartan back office, conferring with a computer repairman. Soon he will return to his patients. Like other dentists at the clinic, he sees an average of 10 to 14 a day.
As administrator, Underwood confers with dentists on treatment plans and occasionally cajoles a colleague into providing specialty work at or near cost.
"He's the nicest man on earth," Rogers said, "very down to earth and very good with the kids. He's been seeing some of them for years."
Underwood said he's seen a change in the children coming to his clinic, many of whom speak mainly Spanish. "More kids are going on to college," he said. "The goals have moved up. When I first started here, a lot of the kids were just trying to get through high school."
Students are no longer eligible for the dental program after they graduate high school, yet some have come back to talk about college and other plans.
"We've had people go into engineering, computers, lots of professions," Underwood said. "No dentists yet, but it's probably just a matter of time."