by Casey Hein, BSDH, MBA
Every once in awhile you come across someone with a genuine interest in serving others - someone with a servant’s heart, a rare quality in today’s “now” culture. Couple this with quiet dedication to a worthy cause, and you have a true unsung hero named Sally Cobb.
Sally has practiced dental hygiene for more than 40 years, which is a tribute in itself. Another thing that distinguishes Sally is her dedication to children with visual impairments. Sally is the brain and muscle behind the over a quarter million dollars raised per year for the Kansas City Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired (CCVI). If it weren’t for the work I do with Sally’s husband, Dr. Charles Cobb, I would never have known that Sally is recognized as one of Kansas City’s most beloved citizens.
Dr. Charles Cobb is an internationally renowned researcher, scientific writer, academician, and clinician recognized for his contributions to periodontology. He is also a teacher revered by his colleagues and generations of students at the School of Dentistry at the University of Missouri Kansas City. Charles retired from private practice about a year ago. Since that time he has dedicated himself to helping me develop Grand Rounds in Oral-Systemic MedicineTM as the editor-at-large.
In March 2005, shortly after we launched the inaugural issue of Grand Rounds, I got to know Sally when I was a guest in the Cobbs’ home. She gave me a tour of CCVI where I saw firsthand the kind of magic that can be woven into the lives of young children with profound visual impairments. During the tour I had several opportunities to observe the intensive nature of the education these children receive, and after brief conversations with teachers and volunteers at the center, I realized that those involved with these children are exceedingly passionate about their roles and responsibilities to the children. The mission of CCVI is to prepare children with visual impairments, including those with multiple disabilities, to function at their highest potential in the sighted world. The greatest challenge in fulfilling this mission is raising the financial resources necessary to fund this intensive, specialized education. This is where Sally Cobb’s inspiring leadership and tireless dedication to CCVI is so pivotal.
Kansas City’s Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired
The Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired, originally called the Kansas City Nursery School for the Blind, was founded in 1952 by the Junior League of Kansas City, the Delta Gamma Alumnae Chapter of Kansas City, and the Alphapointe Association for the Blind. In the original one-room school, eight blind children and five sighted children were taught by one teacher, who was assisted by Junior League and Delta Gamma volunteers. Today there are more than 200 blind and 25 sighted children, from birth through kindergarten age, in the preschool/kindergarten program. These special needs children must have a visual impairment in order to be admitted. Their eye conditions range from retinopathy of prematurity, cortical or cerebral visual impairment, albinism, congenital glaucoma, microphthalmia, optic nerve atrophy, optic nerve hypoplasia, and retinoblastoma. More than 50 percent of the children have additional disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, deaf-blindness, mental retardation, seizures, autism, and other syndromes. Most children come from a 60-mile radius around Kansas City; however, children come from even greater distances if there are no services in their communities. Several parents drive into Kansas City and stay with relatives during the week and then drive home on the weekends. There have been instances when families have moved to Kansas City just so their child could attend CCVI.
Today, CCVI has 49 staff members including teachers, teaching assistants, occupational therapists, speech therapists, physical therapists, orientation and mobility specialists, program directors, Braille instructors, and social workers. An executive director, supported by administrative, development, and public relations staff, oversees the daily operations of the center. To plan the long-term future of the center, CCVI has several active boards including a 40-member board of directors, a “Friends of CCVI” board of 18, and a “Young Friends” board of 10. There are about 50 classroom volunteers. CCVI has five classrooms, conference rooms, two therapy rooms, one infant room, a gym, therapeutic pool, cafeteria, playground, family room, and offices for therapy, infant, and administrative staff.
Funding the mission of Kansas City’s CCVI
The budget for CCVI is close to $2.3 million, two-thirds of which comes from contributions from individuals and civic organizations, foundations, corporations, and special events like the Trolley Run. The remaining funds come from contracts from local school districts and the states of Missouri and Kansas. Proceeds from special events such as the Trolley Run and cookbook sales contribute much of the funding necessary to carry out the mission of CCVI. According to the center’s executive director, Mary Lynne Dolembo, lack of the funds generated by the Trolley Run would be devastating to CCVI.
“The $325,000 we raised last year from the Trolley Run was over 16 percent of last year’s budget,” she said.
It is estimated that each CCVI child’s services average more than $10,000 per year. Losing those funds would mean no resources to provide teaching and therapy services for 32 children. Dolembo casts this lack of funding in a very compelling way.
“I can think of nothing more horrible than saying to a grieving family of a blind infant that I’m sorry, we cannot help you. I feel so lucky that in my 26-plus years as CCVI executive director I have never had to say that to a family, and it’s because of volunteers like Sally Cobb.”
Indeed, Mrs. Cobb has been very instrumental in the success of raising these funds through a number of special events, including the Trolley Run and cookbook sales.
The Trolley Run was started in 1989 with 778 runners and netted $13,000. Now with close to 10,000 runners and walkers, the Trolley Run is the largest four-mile race in the United States. Sally chaired the run in 1996, and today remains a vital part of planning and executing the event.
Of Sally’s leadership of the Trolley Run, Dolembo said, “She did a fabulous job recruiting volunteers, organizing everything to the ‘nth’ degree, and making everyone feel that they were the most important volunteer in the entire run. Sally has never met a stranger and has endeared herself to an incredible mix of people needed to make the run work. For example, she knows all of the guys who work for the electric company who get out the cherry pickers and hang the start and finish banners. They love her because she’s out there with them at midnight when they do it and she brings them homemade cookies after the run. She knows where the key is to open the water pipe on the Plaza (which is really important if you run out of bottled water for 10,000 hot and dehydrated runners). I truly believe she knows more about the inner workings of the run and the Kansas City Plaza than anyone. She is just amazing. Sally never minds rolling up her sleeves and getting dirty.”
Dolembo gave examples of Sally’s knack for improvising and quick remedy. In a special event that required the last-minute stringing of lights in an outdoor concert hall, Sally worked her magic. According to Dolembo, the center did not have the money to rent or buy lights, so Sally persuaded a local electric company to loan, and then install the lights. Dolembo says that Sally is always on hand to help, and that she is not shy about calling on volunteers and recruiting expertise for special events. At a fundraiser this summer, Sally recruited one of the most famous chefs in town to discount the catering, talked a dentist-friend who is a sommelier into doing a wine-tasting, and cajoled her husband and son to volunteer for post-event clean up.
It has been said that Sally Cobb knows every chef in Kansas City, and though she underplays her own talent, is also recognized as a gourmet cook. This, in part, was what made her determined to launch a cookbook, A Taste of Kansas City Then and Now, another significant source of revenue for CCVI. Dolembo tells this story about how this highly acclaimed cookbook came to be.
“A bunch of us were at Sally and Charley’s one New Year’s Eve. It was a potluck so everyone brought food and we were all complimenting each other. We started talking about the upcoming 50th anniversary of CCVI and reminiscing about all the cooking and restaurant events that had been associated with CCVI. Sally decided to start the cookbook and asked friends and local business owners to donate recipes from the last 50 years. She got volunteers to test the recipes, secured underwriting to cover the cost of printing the first 3,000 cookbooks, typed the copy, got a local historian to write a history of eating in Kansas City, talked to the Kansas City Restaurant Association for their support, and prepared recipes from the cookbook to roll out an ambitious marketing program in stores throughout Kansas City.”
According to Dolembo, Sally worried that the first 3,000 copies wouldn’t sell. With almost 17,000 copies sold, Sally totally underestimated the popularity of this special cookbook. Today CCVI is in the fifth printing of A Taste of Kansas City Then and Now.
Dolembo’s final tribute to Sally speaks volumes about why she is so beloved in the Kansas City community.
“Sally’s co-workers quickly become friends and they love her, for all of the reasons above ... her dedication to the children at CCVI, her work ethic, her going above and beyond, her thoughtfulness - I could go on and on.”
From Sally’s and Charles’ perspectives
When I asked Sally why she was so interested in helping children with such profound needs, she answered, “Once you meet the teachers and students, your heart melts. I think at first you feel sorry for them and can’t imagine the hurdles they have to overcome, but then you see the determination of the children and staff and you admire them and want to help in any way you can.”
Sally told a story of hope about a family she has gotten to know at CCVI, about a boy who was born deaf, with no eyes and a heart defect. After years of many surgeries and long hospital stays, this former CCVI student just returned from Israel where his family and friends celebrated his bar mitzvah.
Sally said, “Tyler is brilliant and has won national honors in several categories. No one but his parents and the school dreamed anything like this could happen.”
I asked Dr. Cobb to describe his wife’s expertise as a dental hygienist and he replied that he had never worked with Sally until he retired from UMKC and re-entered practice.
“Sally became my office manager, business manager, surgical assistant, dental hygienist, and patient advocate. Probably a result of having worked with several different periodontists, it was no surprise to me that Sally revealed more knowledge about clinical periodontics than most of my professional colleagues. Indeed, she is a great diagnostician. Her ability with the scaler and curette is far superior to mine as is her ability to relate to the patients. Sally is a ‘people person’ who knows her abilities, limitations, and the goals of periodontal treatment. In short, in my opinion, Sally is a damn fine hygienist!”
Since I have gotten to know Sally, I often ponder how happy she is to support Charles and how content she has been in the shadow of his notoriety. Charles is the first to acclaim her tireless dedication to CCVI and the servant’s heart that defines her character. From the podium at a UMKC distinguished alumni ceremony where Charles was asked to moderate, he credited his wife as the person he has learned the most from. Her quiet dedication to a special population and her heart for service has made a significant difference in the lives of many children with profound disabilities. I have also learned from Sally how to live out the true commitment to serve.
Casey Hein, BSDH, MBA, is the chief editor of the peer-reviewed journal called Grand Rounds in Oral-Systemic MedicineTM which is dedicated to raising awareness of the importance of the relationship between oral and systemic health, and advancing the understanding of oral-systemic science and its appropriate integration into the clinical practice of mainstream dentistry and medicine.