SILVER SPRING – When Usa Bunnag was 14 years old, she and her brother came to the United States from a remote town in northeastern Thailand to live with their father. She knew no English and had experienced a few of the luxuries considered normal in this country.
After her initial shock, Bunnag went onto to graduate from Montgomery Blair High School, spend five years at Montgomery College, finished dental school at Howard University and raised two sons.
Through it all, Bunnag never forgot the girls of Thailand, who often are married before they turn 15 years old or become victims of sex trafficking. They rarely finish their education.
“Despite Thailand moving forward and becoming more of an industrial nation, a lot of young women still were not able to go to school,” she said. “I thought the best thing I could do was to educate them.”
In 2003, Bunnag, who has dental offices in Bethesda and Silver Spring, set up Smiles on Wings, a nonprofit that holds dental clinics and enables young girls to attend college for dental or medical care or education. Bunnag’s efforts earned her inclusion in The Daily Record’s Top 100 Women in America.
She interviews both the young girls and their families before awarding any scholarships to make sure they are committed not just to finishing college but to remaining in the remote towns of Thailand and giving back for at least four years.
“They are now giving back to the community. That’s the most important thing,” said Bunnag of Kensington. “I don’t want to just send them to school. I want to empower them. I want them to share my philosophy of giving back.”
While some might consider her sexist for only helping girls, she explained, “Most boys grow up to be soldiers and leave town. Most girls get married at 14 or 15 and stay behind to do the farming.”
So far, she has paid tuition, room and board costs for 14 young tribal women, five of whom have finished college, she said. Bunnag also supports grade school students, supporting them through high school to show them the benefits of education.
Besides funding scholarships, Smiles on Wings also established a permanent dental clinic following the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami, which is run by local Thai dentists.
Much of her money comes from what she earns as a dentist. The rest comes from donors, many of whom are her dental patients touched by her compassion.
“I was sitting in the chair. She was working on me, and I saw a picture, so I asked her something about it,” said Bill Hoffman of Silver Spring. He soon found himself volunteering to arrange a gala to raise money for Smiles on Wings.
Added Bunnag, “My patients, when I am going on a mission” offer to help financially.
Mariel Shilling, a patient since she was five years old, is now Smiles on Wings’ part-time director of giving and donor relations. About four years ago, she went to Thailand to observe the education system there.
“I loved it,” Shilling said, although she couldn’t speak the language and relied on translators when available.
She also received the American Dental Association’s Humanitarian Award in 2017, making her the first women and first person of color to receive this award. The awards and honors are still coming through as in mid-May, Howard University will name her its 2019 Distinguished Alumni at its graduation services, she said.
“My philosophy as a business is to nurture and mentor the next generation and leave behind the legacy that can help the community,” Bunnag said during a reception at her Silver Spring dental office April 27 to celebrate her becoming a Top Woman in Maryland.
“I am happy to give back. I think it’s in my DNA,” she said, adding her mother taught her always to be compassionate.
Her mother, who died while Bunnag was in dental school, “was so smart, but she never had the chance to go to school. She would have been a great mathematician.”