Though he is seldom seen without a wide smile, it’s been years since Fred Kallenbach has been able to flash his pearly whites. For decades the 78-year-old special-needs senior lacked the means to care for his oral health, leaving him with a cheerful yet mostly toothless grin.

But Kallenbach’s smile became even brighter last week, thanks to a thoughtful donation from Northern Arizona University dental hygiene students. The 19 graduating seniors in the program contributed funds they had raised for their senior class gift to pay for lab fees for Kallenbach to be fitted for new dentures.

The students learned of Kallenbach’s needs during their clinical rotation to the Olive Branch, an assisted living community in Rimrock, Ariz., where Kallenbach resides. Many residents of the facility participate in NAU’s Del E. Webb Dental Outreach Program, which gives dental hygiene students clinical training in their field while providing free oral health care to people with disabilities or severe medical problems.

Since Kallenbach arrived at the Olive Branch a couple years ago, manager Cynthia Howell had been actively seeking grants and other avenues to fund new dentures for their elderly resident, who has no family or money of his own to pay to have dentures fabricated.

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Recent dental hygiene graduates Heather Head (left) and co-class president Megan McNeece pose with Fred Kallenbach in front of his Rimrock, Ariz., home earlier this year.

Having spent the past three years fundraising for a senior class gift to bestow upon their college upon their graduation, the students had been contemplating how to use their funds when Megan McNeece, a co-class president, learned they had the exact amount Kallenbach needed to pay for new dentures. She considered it “a sign” that he should be their benefactor.

“We want to be the class remembered for its kindness and compassion,” McNeece said.

Fighting back tears, Howell agreed with such an assessment. “I was truly amazed when these students offered to do that. Fred is a very kind man and he hasn’t had many good breaks in his life. Now he will be able to enjoy eating food he hasn’t been able to eat in a long time. This really will make his life so much better and he’ll be so much happier.”

Ellen Grabarek, who directs the outreach program, said the gesture was uniquely humanitarian. “This group of students is truly altruistic, and they get what it means to give back,” she said.