Before he was a teenager, Joseph Cordova’s mother had died, he was living with his alcoholic grandmother and suffering from serious dental problems that tore down his confidence — and could have eventually led to life-threatening health problems.
His front two teeth were chipped terribly. He had missing teeth and the ones that were in his mouth were crooked and riddled with cavities. And he had problems with his gums.
However, with the help of Glendale Healthy Kids, a local pastor and a dentist at USC, Cordova now has a smile he is proud of and he’s venturing into a real estate career.
“Tooth by tooth, they really helped me piece my life back together,” Cordova said. “They gave me confidence. They gave me something to smile about.”
But the road to a happier life was difficult. His mother, who had four children with Cordova being the oldest, died when she was only 23 years old and Cordova was 8. His father was out of the picture.
Cordova, along with his younger brother and sister, went to live with his grandmother. The youngest sibling, a girl, went to live with her biological father.
But the grandmother became a severe alcoholic after her daughter’s death.
“She threw up blood, right in front of me,” he recalled. “She drank herself to death.”
Living in that environment took a mental toll on him. “Every time I heard a siren, I would get sick to my stomach,” Cordova said. “I knew it was for my grandmother. She would be drunk somewhere.”
When his grandmother died his freshman year, Cordova bounced around, often living for periods of time with relatives and friends.
“I pretty much just ran the streets,” he said.
During those years, he got into trouble for getting into fights, possession of alcohol and some petty vandalism. He was also often cited for missing school.
Trying to get away from a path that was leading to gangs, Cordova moved to Florida when he was 16 to live with a great-uncle. A short time later, however, Cordova returned and, because he had outstanding citations and missed court dates, a judge sent him to a boot camp for at-risk youth for six months.
It was there that his life hit a pivotal point. On Christmas day at the boot camp, Cordova was feeling particularly low because others were getting visits from family and friends, but he was alone. Cordova opened a Bible.
“I was praying and praying that when I get out, things will change,” he said.
Once he left the boot camp, he started occasionally attending Bethany Bible Presbyterian Church in Glendale, where the pastor had known members of the Cordova family for years through the church's bus outreach program, where vans would go out and bring residents to the church and then drive them home after services.
“He wasn’t getting a lot of direction at that point,” said Ronald Vandermey, Bethany’s co-pastor who adopted Cordova's younger brother and sister after their grandmother died. “I could tell, though, that the teeth problem that he had was so pervasive. It held him back.”
Eventually, Cordova, who had not been adopted, started living with Vandermey more regularly and it was then that his life’s story opened a new chapter.
Vandermey was at a meeting of Glendale Healthy Kids, a nonprofit that provides health services for local needy children, when he met a USC dentist who volunteers for the group and told him about Cordova’s dental problems.
Cathy Keen, then president of Glendale Healthy Kids, said Dr. Charles Goldstein took a look at X-rays of Cordova’s mouth and was shocked. He said he’d rarely seen dental problems that were so serious.
“He said I had the mouth of a 40-year-old when I was 18,” Cordova recalled.
Goldstein, who has since passed away, decided to help Cordova, initially when the university’s dental school visited the city through Glendale Healthy Kids and provided services in portable trailers. However, Cordova’s situation was so severe that he had to start treatments at the USC dental school directly.
Goldstein was able to find grants to pay for Cordova's overwhelming amount of dental care, said Keen, a mother of five who took on the responsibility of driving him to and from his dental visits.
He needed extractions, braces, periodontal surgery, many fillings, a root canal, an implant and several crowns. All of the work totaled well over $30,000, Vandermey said.
Cordova’s dental appointments spanned over three years and were usually every other month or so, and the sessions lasted three, four — sometimes even five hours.
“He called it ‘the electric chair,’” Keen said, adding that the excruciating experience and the protracted amount of time to complete the work helped Cordova appreciate the new smile he was slowly seeing even more.
Vandermey remembered that Cordova remained “stoic” about the appointments. “He never complained about having to go,” he said.
During trips to and from the dental school, Cordova slowly began opening up to Keen and inched toward trusting people more during his many dental visits.
“The drives were like mini-therapy sessions,” Keen said.
Eventually, Keen invited Cordova over to her home for holidays and family events, which were times of closeness the young man had never experienced before.
“Their front door was always open to me,” Cordova said. “I wasn’t used to family dinners. She showed me a lot of love and was there for me.”
Then, the Keen family rallied around Cordova when he went for his GED. For example, one of Keen's daughters tutored him in algebra and family members provided him other types of support for his journey to complete his high-school education.
After getting his GED, Cordova enrolled at Glendale Community College. Others in the community pitched in. The Glendale Kiwanis Club, where Keen has been a longtime member and a past president, helped pay for his textbooks.
But Cordova still had to work to support himself, so it took him five years to complete the coursework to receive a real estate certificate.
Keen said seeing Cordova — a young man who’s broken smile almost crippled his life — graduate from college was extremely inspirational for her.
“It was one of the greatest moments in my life,” she said. “I’m really, really proud of him.”
Cordova, now 28, works as a Realtor at Keller Williams in Glendale and he's become an extended member of the Keen family, having just spent Christmas with Keen, her husband, Bob, and their children, Jennifer, John, Kristen, Scott and Karen.
“And he never misses a Mother's Day,” Cathy Keen said.
He’s also gotten more involved at Bethany church, now driving a van in the same outreach program that used to bring his family to the church, even covering his old neighborhood south of Colorado Boulevard and west of Pacific Avenue. He also leads the church’s youth group.
Vandermey said he and his wife, Denise, as well as Cathy Keen, Goldstein, local Kiwanians and so many others in the community can look back proudly at selflessly building up a young man who so desperately needed a helping hand.
“They filled, in part, the missing pieces of Joseph’s life that had not been filled in by family,” he said. “Just because someone [is living in] a dysfunctional house and they’re not excelling in school, doesn’t mean they don’t have tremendous talent and ability.”
Follow Mark Kellam on Twitter: @LAMarkKellam.