Don Rollofson, DMD, learned early on in his life that he wanted a career in the sciences. Once he chose dentistry, his next step was college, and that is when, like most people planning to embark on a path to obtain a higher education, he knew he would need some help financially to fulfill his dream.
Although he paid for some of his tuition on his own, Rollofson, the first in his family to attend college, was able to take advantage of the U.S. Navy’s Health Professions Scholarship Program. The scholarship helped pay his way through dental school at the University of Oregon. Rollofson graduated with his dental degree in 1976 and served in the Navy until 1979, including a general practice residency. He later returned to Oregon to study to become an orthodontist utilizing the military’s GI Bill.
Having the financial assistance to help him through dental school is something that molded his perspective on giving back. Now the chair of the CDA Foundation, Rollofson heads up two of its major programs – the Student Loan Repayment Grant and CDA Cares.
In exchange for a commitment by recipients to care for the underserved in a community clinic, the CDA Foundation’s Student Loan Repayment Grant program awards selected recent dental school/specialty graduates with up to $35,000 per year for a maximum of $105,000 over three years to help repay their student debt.
“The cost of dental school is so much different these days than it was when I was in school. The idea of a young dentist opening a new practice while having a home mortgage for their family, and dealing with student debt, is daunting,” Rollofson said. “That is why I am proud that the CDA Foundation is able to help new dentists with their student debt like I was afforded when I was in college.”
The Student Loan Repayment Grant program has placed 13 dentists into clinics where they have provided more than 62,000 patients with oral health services valued at nearly $16 million in communities where individuals would otherwise go without. And, virtually all of the 13 grant recipients have remained not only in public health, but also in the communities where they first served.
“It is great that these new dentists have been able to make an impact in their communities and not have to worry so much about these student debts that are approaching $300,000 to $400,000,” Rollofson said.
Rollofson, who has been practicing in Elk Grove for more than 30 years, became involved in organized dentistry in the 80s during his participation with the Sacramento District Dental Society (SDDS). He took over as the president in 2002. He also has served as a CDA delegate for many years, a CDA trustee for six years and was a charter friend of the CDA Foundation.
Aside from helping new dentists with their student debt, Rollofson has a long history of putting together community dental clinics.
In 1991, he co-founded the Smiles for Kids charitable dental and orthodontic program with the SDDS. The program started out as a charity arm of a Senior PGA golf tournament and has since, under the leadership of Rollofson, turned into an event that now provides more than $1 million in care every year including providing braces for children. The program would later become part of the ADA’s Give Kids a Smile campaign.
“At the time it started, I was thinking about what I could do to help underprivileged kids. Once it got going it was like a seed that had been planted and all it needed was a little fertilizer and it became huge,” Rollofson said. “It’s by far the biggest Give Kids a Smile event now.”
For his involvement in Smiles for Kids, Rollofson has received numerous honors and awards including “Heroes in HealthCare,” “People Helping People,” “Fred Raphael Lifetime Community Service,” “ J.C. Penny Golden Rule,” and the prestigious “Alexis de Tocqueville Award” from the United Way.
His experience with Smiles for Kids was the perfect segue into his next venture after he took over as chair of the CDA Foundation in 2011 — CDA Cares.
Along with the help of past CDA President Andy Soderstrom, DDS, and other CDA dentists, Rollofson helped the CDA Foundation launch CDA Cares in 2012. CDA Cares is a program that allows volunteer dentists, with the assistance of other dental professionals and community volunteers, to provide dental services (cleanings, fillings, extractions and a limited number of full and partial dentures) at no charge to patients who experience barriers to care. This program also educates the public and policymakers about the importance of good oral health and the need for an adequately funded dental safety net and a strong state infrastructure, including a state dental director, who can develop programs to improve the oral health of Californians.
“What I am most proud of about CDA Cares is how the Foundation and CDA stepped back and spent the time to think these clinics through and come up with a clear mission statement, and also created a system that works well for volunteers,” Rollofson said.
During these two-day clinics, volunteers provide services at no charge to, on average, 2,000 patients.
“The volunteers always have a fun time over the two days and now that we have had four clinics [Modesto, Sacramento, San Jose and San Diego] the core group of volunteers are beginning to feel a little bit like family,” Rollofson said. “We all enjoy the opportunity to spend time together doing a job that impacts so many lives.”
Since 2012, the CDA Cares volunteer dental program has provided $6 million in care to more than 8,000 patients.
“There are so many stories from patients every time we host CDA Cares in a different city. While the main treatment philosophy is to relieve pain and infection, there are some life-changing moments,” Rollofson said. “We have made flippers for patients who have a spouse that has never seen them with a full set of teeth. It can be very emotional.”
Family is an important part of Rollofson’s life and it has been an emotional experience for him watching his oldest daughter Christy become a dentist herself. At the age of 10, Christy was volunteering in Rollofson’s practice by leading patients to the dental chair. She also volunteered at a young age at Smiles for Kids. Now, following in her father’s footsteps, Christy received her Doctorate of Dental Surgery from the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC and currently practices in Elk Grove. She served on the CDA Committee on the New Dentist including as chair, on the Policy Development Council, as ADA Delegate, and now is on the Board of Managers of CDA Presents.
“It means everything to me that not only did she want to become a dentist, but that many people come up to me now and tell me how capable she is and what a great practice she has developed. Christy makes me extremely proud,” Rollofson said of his daughter.
Rollofson has three other kids who are all in college. His wife Janet, a mortgage banker, has been a partner in volunteering over the years, leading patient registration at CDA Cares and at the Smiles for Kids programs. Both of them care passionately about organized dentistry. In fact, Rollofson proposed to Janet on the floor of the CDA House of Delegates in Beverley Hills five years ago with “Resolution 90210.”
Now into his third year as the chair of the CDA Foundation, Rollofson hopes to continue the success of the Student Loan Repayment Grant and CDA Cares, programs that are funded through donations from dentists.
“I would really like to see more dentists donate to the Foundation because it helps shine a spotlight on our profession through the good work we do,” Rollofson said. “Currently, only around 5 percent of CDA members donate, and I hope seeing the progress we have made in communities across the state motivates more dentists to get involved.”
For more information on the CDA Foundation’s programs, visit cdafoundation.org.