Ever since she was 12-years-old, Kari Cunningham knew that she wanted to be in the world of dentistry.
Like many young children, Cunningham was an avid thumb sucker and, as a result, developed a space in between her teeth. While the gap eventually closed on its own and she didn't need braces, she developed a strong interest in orthodontics.
“The confidence that I was able to gain from not needing that dental experience was really remarkable for me,” reflected Cunningham. “Through the absence of dentistry, I got interested in dentistry.”
Cunningham credits her parents for fostering her passion. Her father, who had been a trained dental assistant in the United States Air Force in the 1970s, took her to the Euclid Public Library to research what it would take to be a doctor in dentistry. Her mother introduced her to a number of dentists that provided Cunningham with the opportunity to shadow their work throughout her high school years.
“Everything I was doing was reaffirming that desire and my passion to serve in this capacity as an oral health care practitioner,” she noted.
Soon enough, Cunningham was off to the University of Pittsburgh on a full academic scholarship to start her career in orthodontics. Much to her surprise, however, her desire for a career in orthodontics shifted to a focus on community dentistry after taking part in a multi-country study abroad program known as Semester at Sea.
As a young college student traveling abroad, Cunningham said she was focused on “observing smiles” wherever the Semester at Sea took her. One such stop, however, changed her life forever.
While in Tanzania, Cunningham had an opportunity to visit an orphanage as part of her women’s studies class. The orphanage housed 200 children, ranging in age from infants to 18 years old. Sadly, most of the children's parents had passed from AIDS or HIV.
Cunningham spoke with the headmistress of the orphanage about the children’s dental health experience and learned that the children received virtually no care. Cunningham ached for this community, especially because they had been so welcoming to her.
“That was my lightbulb moment,” Cunningham explained. “It was no longer about straightening teeth. For me, it couldn’t be. How could I want to go and straighten teeth at home when my brothers and sisters in Africa didn’t even have the means to obtain a healthy smile and maintain it in the first place?”
Cunningham continued, “I knew that my brothers and sisters in Northeast Ohio must also be struggling with limited access to quality, compassionate dental care. I felt that the Lord was pulling me to say this is where my purpose is. From then on I was focused on serving the underserved.”
From that moment forward, Cunningham shifted her focus to community dentistry and sought to make a difference.
As she continued on to dental school at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), Cunningham received a scholarship from the National Health Service Corps in return for her commitment to serving the underserved.
After working with children through the CWRU Health Smiles Sealant Program, Cunningham knew that she would focus on pediatric dentistry.
She explained, “I was pulling out both potato chip residue and Cheeto residue from big holes in kids' teeth at 9 a.m. To me, that was a culture shock. I think gosh, these kids don't necessarily even have the access to consistent, whole family meals. Instead, these kids are coming to school to have breakfast. I didn't know that that existed.”
Cunningham continued, “I realized pediatrics is my calling. I wanted to be a part of the workforce to help create a generation of children who receive good quality, compassionate, preventive care.” After residency, Cunningham went on to work in federally qualified community health centers as a provider and dental director.
Just as her father had always told her, Cunningham “put [herself] in a position to make change” and Panther Pediatric Dentistry was born.
The fierce logo featuring a panther head atop of a molar is not only an ode to the mascots of Cunningham’s previous schools, but for clients, it represents a practice that provides high-quality dentistry while being an advocate for the children she serves.
Panther Pediatric Dentistry is Euclid’s only dental office specifically dedicated to taking care of the dental needs of children up to 12-years-old. Cunningham and her team strive to make a difference by serving as a resource and support system for parents and caregivers so children can achieve optimal oral and overall health.
For those visiting Panther Pediatric Dentistry, however, it is much more than a dental practice—it’s a place where children can grow and learn to reach their full potential. When Cunningham isn't talking to her young patients about the latest Disney movies, they can play with the tablet-based computer games and toys from the treasure tower, or listen to music and watch the inspirational and educational content on the PosiTiVe television station.
“I believe that you can't reach for what you can't see,” said Cunningham of the PosiTiVe television, but also a message that emanates from her practice as a whole. “If children don't see images of success, then they have a hard time reaching for it. We want to provide children with a whole plethora of what their possibilities are.”
Life as an Entrepreneur:
Being an entrepreneur and opening her own practice allowed Cunningham to serve children from Northeast Ohio in a better way than was previously available, and to do so in a way that she feels is best.
She noted, “I wanted to make a difference and now I get to do so on my own terms. I get to hire the staff that I want to. I get involved in community activities that I want to. By putting myself in the position of opening my own practice, I truly am able to make positive change and impact the community around me.”
Even when many practices closed during the pandemic, Cunningham stayed open. As for her reasoning, she explained, “I will always be committed to serving the underserved population. We knew we knew we needed to keep our doors open to address the great need out there.”
In reflecting on her life as an entrepreneur, Cunningham stated, “I have come back to the community that raised me and, in doing so, I’m serving as an example and a living testimony of what you can do when you put your mind, heart and soul into something, and what happens when you make a commitment and see it through.”
While her path to becoming an entrepreneur wasn’t linear, her journey along the way is what enabled her to see her true passion and take the necessary steps to reach her goals. She explained that to be a successful entrepreneur, you must always take advantage of opportunities to dream, and devise plans and strategies to help with becoming successful.
Yet, even then, success she noted, comes from being humble, having a good time, and not taking yourself or your work too seriously.
Cunningham credits the alumni relations at CWRU for helping her reach her goals. Cunningham was a student of the alumni board during her time at dental school. The opportunities she had to interact with alumni left an everlasting impression on her.
“It was amazing to see the repeated success of our alumni,” she said. “To be able to interact with them and have many conversations with doctors who were so proud to have gone to this institution that allowed them to enjoy the fruits of their labor and live their dreams was incredible. Through all of this, the alumni still found time and money to give back.”
Now, Cunningham is President of the Alumni Association for the dental school and she plans to be the same good alum to future students as older alum were to her. She hopes to help current and future students to achieve their dreams in the same way that she was able to from the support of the alumni.
Whether it be for any aspiring entrepreneurs or simply anyone heading forward in their life, Cunningham wants everyone to not only be mindful of their goals, but to also embrace the changes that come along with them.
“As an entrepreneur, it is important to begin with the end in mind. Be willing and flexible to understand that while you want to end up somewhere, it is not a straight line to get there. Mishaps, frustrations, and complications are not necessarily a reflection of you.” She explained, “It's all about your response to the environment that is ever changing around you.”
However, Cunningham emphasizes that once you figure out your purpose, don’t let it be a secret.
“Embrace your craft and be willing to share it with others. With that said, be responsible with the gifts that you have been given and be sure to set a wonderful example for people to model and serve as a resource.”
She continued, “Always remember to pay it forward by giving back. Whether that is time, advice, or simply a shoulder to cry on. Be available, be flexible, and just be well overall.”