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Nisswa Smiles keeps kids, troops smiling

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Nisswa Smiles dentist Luke Waln remembers how he enjoyed receiving care packages while deployed in Afghanistan with the Army. Now his dental office is paying it forward— Nisswa Smiles hosted a candy buy back day, and the 149 pounds of candy collected will be added to care packages sent to troops overseas.

Waln and the staff at Nisswa Smiles hosted the candy buyback program, offering $1 a pound to any child willing to give up some of their candy the day after Halloween. That candy will then be sent to Operation Gratitude in California, a non-profit that assembles and sends the care packages.

Many children sold their candy, but Waln and Hillary Swanson, patient coordinator, said they were surprised when businesses and neighbors also donated their leftover candy, which brought the grand total to 149 pounds of candy.

Children filtered in and out of the Nisswa Smiles office Friday, Nov. 1, to sell Waln their candy. They also colored pictures to be sent with the candy for care packages.

Brielle Jones sold her Halloween candy to Waln and stared a little longingly into the giant plastic tote filled to the brim with relinquished candy.

“Who would give up Kit-Kats?!” Jones said, surprised to see several of the bars sitting on top of the tote.

“You like Kit-Kats?” Waln asked. Jones nodded, and Waln handed her a bar. “You better eat one,” he said.

Indeed, some children were reluctant to hand over their candy, so Waln went easy on them.

“I’m very mad at you,” one child told Waln as he entered the office. Nonetheless, the boy appeared happy to give up some of his candy in exchange for cash, and was given a piece back to eat in the office.

Each child who gave up candy was also entered into a contest to win a $100 Best Buy gift certificate.

Waln said that by paying them for their candy the kids get a little back, but also realize their candy is going to a good cause.

Though the office wasn’t sure what to expect for their first year of the candy buyback, they were pleased with the turnout. More than 50 pounds was donated from businesses before children even began coming in, Swanson said.

Waln said his dentist’s office had a lot of help with the program from local businesses that donated their services, as well as candy, and private donations are helping with the cost of shipping the candy to Operation Gratitude.

Waln said that while deployed in Afghanistan, children tended to be skeptical of U.S. soldiers but loved getting candy. Offering the kids candy from care packages warmed them up a bit, he said.

He added that it helped show that the soldiers weren’t there to destroy, but to build.

“Candy helps everything—except your teeth,” Waln said.

Waln also put his dentistry skills to work while deployed, setting up temporary clinics to provide dental care for locals who needed teeth pulled or had infections. It was another effort to win the hearts and minds of the local populous, he said.

Waln is from Wadena and said he fell in love with Nisswa. He has two children, Tori, 7, and Zach, 9. In addition to his dentistry work, he volunteers in the reading program at Nisswa Elementary and has coached his kids’ baseball and basketball teams. He’s also a Lions Club member, a member of the VFW, American Legion member, Nisswa firefighter and a first responder.

The Nisswa Smiles team plans to host the candy buyback program again, and hopes it will grow now that the word’s out. Waln said he’s excited to bring the program to the area, and sees it getting bigger and better every year.