Dr. Joseph Pantaleo had a singular focus since he was a small boy: teeth.
For as long as he can remember, Dr. Pantaleo dreamed of becoming a dentist. After graduating magna cum laude from the honors program at St. Francis College, he headed straight for New York University College of Dentistry, earning his Doctor of Dental Surgery in 2011. He opened his midtown Manhattan practice in 2012, serving patients there since.
But one part of Dr. Pantaleo's professional path wasn't predictable, even to him. In 2015, he founded Tomorrow's Smile Today, a non-profit organization that provides free medical care and education to underserved communities in Kenya, with aims to expand into other countries. He travels to Africa at least twice per year, and spends part of each work week devoted to the organization.
Tomorrow's Smile Today is deeply tied to the Franciscan values that Dr. Pantaleo embraced as an undergraduate at St. Francis. He recently reflected on his college years and his charitable work after.
How did you choose St. Francis College?
I went to St. Francis Prep in Queens. The Franciscan Brothers – because I had very good grades – were able to give me a full scholarship [to St. Francis College]. I also applied and was accepted into the honors scholars program. I really came to St. Francis College with the thought of being with the Franciscan Brothers and getting a [Franciscan] education.
So the College's Franciscan values were very much alive you to when you were here?
I think Franciscan values were beyond alive. I went on the Assisi pilgrimage my fourth year. There were just so many good Brothers there, who were inspirational my entire time. They would say, "Hey, don't worry. Just keep going. You'll do this."
The Brothers were so instrumental in making you understand that everyone's the same person. We all breathe the same air. There's a spirituality to that. God has a plan for everybody.
My life would not be where it is today without the Franciscan Brothers.
You arrived at St. Francis knowing you wanted to be a dentist?
The story is that when I was in second grade, we had a career day. Ever since then – and I wrote it in my journal – "when I grow up, I want to be a dentist." It started from an obsession as a little boy. First dinosaur teeth. And that transferred into using drills and then having really cool instruments at the dental office. And then that turned into wanting to help people and specifically do outreach programs.
How did St. Francis College prepare you for dental school?
I think the college really provided the ability to believe in yourself and instilled the idea you can excel anywhere in life. The more you believe in yourself and use your community around you for help, you can achieve anything.
Do you have a specific memory from St. Francis that had a big impact in your life after college?
I do. It's very specific. I was a very good friends with Dr. [Frank] Macchiarola, who was [SFC] president at the time. I had a class that met Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On Monday, the professor said, "Dr. Macchiarola is coming in on Wednesday morning, he'll be here by 8 a.m. Make sure you arrive early."
Of course I showed up at 7:30 for that 8 a.m. class. There was one student who came in after 8. It was about 8:02. Dr. Macchiarola said "you're late, you can't attend." And the student said, "I was running late, the buses, the trains..." And Dr. Macchiarola goes, "well, if I told you yesterday that if you showed up before 8 a.m., you would get your student loan debt [paid off] and a million dollars in your bank account, you would've showed up before 8 a.m."
And that resonated with me. You have to show up. You have to be prepared. You always need to prepare your life so that you don't miss out on any opportunities.
Talk about your dentistry career and how it led to your charity work.
One of my first jobs out of residency [at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center] was at Mt. Sinai [Hospital]. I got involved in their outreach department. We spent three years working with three different outreach programs in Guatemala. After my third mission, I said, "you know what, I can do this."
I was talking to Brother Leonard Conway and I was telling him about Guatemala. I said, "I really wish I could do a program where we take students from either college or high school, and really get these kids doing work." And then he said, "Well, you need to go to Kenya because we [Franciscan Brothers] have a secondary school at Lare, Kenya." And I went on a trip that sameyear and I completely fell in love with the Brothers [there].
I started Tomorrow's Smile Today (TST) in 2015, I was 30 years old.
Tomorrow's Smile today is basically in partnership with the Franciscan Brothers and the local government in Kenya. We've been able to build a medical and dental facility there. We revived the whole education and medical department in this one little town in Kenya called Lare.
How much of your life is devoted to Tomorrow's Smile Today?
It's growing astronomically. So I do four days a week in my private practice and I do one day with the nonprofit. Of course we know that everyday I work on TST but I commit at least one full day to this per week.
I have an advisory board I rely on for Tomorrow's Smile Today. I have someone in PR, I have someone in fundraising, someone in database and then I have a medical doctor and a dentist to help me organize the trips.
How often do you travel to Kenya?
We bring the doctors once a year at this point. I generally take one extra trip per year. That's to meet with the government. I'm actually going next Wednesday for 10 days. When I'm there next time, I'm going to go with the Brothers into Uganda. We're going to try to do the same protocol that we did in Kenya. I'm really excited for these future plans.
How can the St. Francis community get involved with Tomorrow's Smile Today?
Even though this started off as a medical nonprofit, we bring pharmacists [to Kenya], we bring photographers with us. We bring people who are really good with computers and organization and administrative assistants and anyone from any walk in life. My younger brother's an architect. He helped me with plans for the medical facility.
So anyone who wants to be involved and has a passion for helping people are more than welcome to join us.
What advice do you have for St. Francis students considering dentistry as a career?
No matter what all the chatter is around you all day long, just keep believing in yourself and pursue your dreams.
The biggest advice I tell anyone is: if you told me when I was a little kid or in college, if you told me in dental school, if you told me when I was a dental resident that I'd be building facilities in Kenya, I would've laughed, saying there's no way I could ever do something like that. Sometimes it just falls in your lap. You have just got to trust the process and believe God has a plan for all of us.