By Jill Smolowe
January 27, 2003 12:00 PM

Like many homeless people, Dustin Trentman hasn’t visited a dentist in years. Now, as Dr. Judith Allen completes an exam at Cincinnati’s McMicken Dental Center, she’s got good news and bad news. The bad news is that Trentman, 20, has 15 cavities and nine of his teeth need to come out. The good news? “We’re going to try to get his smile back,” says Allen.

What Trentman doesn’t know is that—in part, at least—he’ll owe that transformation to the slender woman standing just outside the exam room: Wendy Hushak, founder of Impact 100, a philanthropic organization with a mission that is elegantly simple. “The idea was that if 100 women would each donate $1,000, we would then have $100,000 to give to the community,” says Hushak, 40. On Oct. 24, after reviewing 115 applications and 5 finalists’ presentations, 123 donors voted to give their funds to the cash-strapped dental clinic. “If they had spread it around to 10 or 20 organizations, the impact would have been much less,” says Cincinnati mayor Charlie Luken.

Impact is precisely what Hushak had in mind back in July 2001 when she began formulating a plan to bring together 100 ordinary women. A former bank vice president, she quit her job in 1998 to spend more time with her children Stephen, now 10, Alex, 8, and Hailey, 6 (she remains friendly with soon-to-be ex-husband Dana Hushak, a banker). Hushak volunteered at her kids’ schools, but she still had a store of unfulfilled altruism. “I’m not independently wealthy, so I can’t write a big check,” she says. “There are lots of people in the same position who’d like to do something really significant.”

Scratching ideas on notepads and napkins, Hushak decided she wanted a wide cross section of women to write the checks and make the decisions, while having the flexibility to devote as much time to the effort as they wanted. By setting a $100,000 target, she says, “we’d all feel a part of this huge gift.”

In October 2001 the foundation’s 15-member board held its first meeting at a local restaurant and decided to recruit a range of donors from across the socioeconomic, racial and ethnic spectrum. Impact 100’s resulting roster boasts secretaries and teachers, as well as attorneys and doctors. One eager recruit was Violeta Huesman, 38, Hushak’s former assistant at Firstar Bank. “I’m a mom of three, I work full-time, I have a husband who travels,” she says. “It doesn’t leave me much time to volunteer.” Scraping together $1,000 was no small task. When the proceeds from a stock sale didn’t quite cover the bill, she tapped the parking reimbursements she gets at work—money usually set aside for Christmas shopping. But for Huesman, who emigrated from Macedonia at age 12, “coming to this country was the biggest opportunity I could be given. I want to give back.”

So did Hushak, whose own childhood in tony Greenwich, Conn., and later in St. Louis appeared picture-perfect. The middle of three daughters born to Richard Hermann, a sales executive, and his homemaker wife, Margo, she grew up vacationing at a Michigan summer home and sailing on Long Island Sound. But under the idyllic veneer lay turmoil. When Hushak was 14, her mother, a recovering alcoholic, committed suicide. “You can look at someone,” she says, “and not have any idea what they’re dealing with.”

Hushak continues to expand her charitable goals, aiming to boost membership to 500 so that the foundation can bestow annual grants in five target areas—education, culture, environment, health and wellness. As for the dental clinic, it can afford much needed equipment—and make a difference. Says Dr. Allen: “If you fix someone’s smile, you fix their self-esteem.”

Jill Smolowe

Lorna Grisby in Cincinnati