Lois Chambers doesn’t smile much anymore.
Not because she isn’t happy. She’s just embarrassed.
Most of her teeth have either been pulled or have fallen out. And she can’t afford to buy dentures.
“I look in the mirror and I don’t even see me anymore,” she said, using her hands to shield her mouth before wiping away tears. “It’s so hard.”
Chambers, 65, who has worked as a cook at Goodwill Industries South Florida for nearly 20 years and helps support her daughter, granddaughter and great grandson, is forced to find ways to cope.
She can no longer eat what she cooks. Pork chops. Barbecue ribs.
She hides in the kitchen. She purées her food. She has learned to smile with her mouth closed.
“I’ve lost all my confidence.”
That’s why her co-workers nominated her for the Miami Herald’s Wish Book, which shares stories of those in need during the holiday season. They are hoping she can get dental help to ease her physical and emotional pain and gain a new set of teeth.
“What we want is to give her her smile back,” said Rosemary Mullins, the operations manager for Goodwill. “She is such a hardworking woman.”
Chambers starts her day at 4:30 a.m. when she picks up 30 loaves of bread from a bakery. She gets to Goodwill, 2121 NW 21st St. in Miami, before anyone else. She loads the bread onto a cart and brings it to what she calls “my kitchen.”
She prepares enough breakfast — eggs, bacon, oatmeal — for at least 500 people who take part in the nonprofit organization’s job program for those with disabilities and special needs. The large manufacturing plant in Allapattah houses one of the organization’s largest operations: its flag and military apparel department.
As soon as breakfast is served, she begins on lunch. Sometimes she cooks her specialty: meatloaf and mashed potatoes. She also cooks fish and chicken.
While humble about her cooking skills, Mullins says the day workers love it. They ask to see her and request her meatloaf.
Chambers learned to cook as a child in Georgia. She said she was only 6 when her mother — who had 23 other children — made her stand atop a wooden box and learn how to cook. She remembers her mom teaching her how to fry bacon and cook flapjacks.
When she is at home in Allapattah, she loves to cook “a good Georgia meal” — collard greens, pork rinds.
One of the hardest things for her to accept is not being able to eat all of the things she loves to cook. She also misses being able to bite into a juicy apple.
“It’s the little things,” she said.
Chambers came to South Florida nearly 40 years ago for a change of scenery and a new life. At the time, she had three children. She now has four adult children.
She ended up getting a job at Goodwill because she was receiving state aid and was enrolled in a job program.
“My mother always taught us to work hard,” she said.
She worked her way up and became the lead cook.
About four years ago, she started getting pain in her mouth. She doesn’t know what led to the problems.
“My mother didn’t play,” she said. “We all had to line up to brush our teeth.”
Life became one painful dentist appointment after another. The dentist began pulling her rotted teeth. All of her top ones are gone and most of her bottom ones are, too.
She has gotten estimates on dentures, but with her dental bills and other expenses, she can’t afford the $1,900 — her out-of-pocket cost with insurance — that a set of teeth would cost.
She said she can’t retire yet because her benefits wouldn’t be enough to cover her expenses.
“I’ve just kinda given up on it,” she said.
But her co-workers haven’t. They are hoping there is a dentist who will help.
Lourdes de la Mata-Little, the vice president of marketing and development with Goodwill, said that what struck her about Chambers right away was that she used to be “so outgoing” and now “she barely talks to anyone.”
Mata-Little called herself a “teeth person”
“I always look at people’s teeth,” she said.
For her, it’s more about looks. She said she wants Chambers to be able to eat what she wants and feel good about herself again.
“No one should have to go through that.”
How to help: Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook @MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook
▪ Update: A few local dentists have offered to help Chambers. Wish Book donations, however, will also help several others in need of similar services.
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.