Sara Mantlik of Ahwatukee has spent four years raising money to build a mobile dental van for poor people, and last week she began seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

The nearly completed 24-foot unit was hauled up from Tucson to a Tempe bar for a fundraiser that the Arizona State University mechanical engineering grad student hoped would garner some of the remaining $15,000 needed to add the remaining pieces of equipment and get the exterior appropriately signed.

The project started innocuously.

The 2012 graduate of Mountain Pointe High School had only been in search of getting one more credit for her sophomore year at ASU when she signed up for a class called Engineering Projects in Community Service.

“I just needed one credit to meet my scholarship,” Mantlik explained. “So I said to myself, ‘I’ll do EPICS because it sounds cool. I really had no idea what it meant.”

What it ended up meaning was a kind of second career for Mantlik, who had never before engaged in a fundraising campaign – let alone organize a project that would require her to learn the art of the ask – approaching people in allkinds of positions and persuading them to contribute to her dream.

“I’ve had to learn everything – how to make flyers, set up a nonprofit and talk to very high-level donors. I’d think, “How am I going to pitch this so they’ll take it seriously?’” she recalled.

She had stumbled on an organization called IMAHelps and its efforts to reach impoverished areas in the United States and around the world where people have no access to dentists and often suffer horrible facial deformations and excruciating pain as a result.

With the help of some classmates, including Desert Vista High School grad Jackie Janssen of Ahwatukee, she set up a nonprofit called Engineering Smiles, rolled up her sleeves and started working.

“When I met the nonprofit IMAHelps and heard the need for dentistry, it really inspired me,” Mantlick said. “And somehow I just kept pushing and pushing. And once I started fundraising, I couldn’t stop.”

“It has become my full-time job the last four years,” she added. “Somehow just wanting to get it done and present it to the nonprofit inspires me. I always think about their faith and how they’re going to react when they see it. That just keeps me going.”

Despite her own efforts, Mantlik said the entire project could not be done without the rest of the student team – including Janssen, Andrea Kemmerrer, Christine Bui, Nick Kemme and Fionnuala McPeake

Along the way, she picked up other allies, including entrepreneur William Elliott, who read about her project in a professional magazine that his dentist-wife Anita receives. The Elliotts and construction management expert John Cribbs comprise her advisory board.

“It’s really exciting,” William Elliott said. “Just through their own hard work and ingenuity they’ve raised a lot of money.”

Mantlik then found Catalina Laboratory Products in Tucson, which provides laboratory equipment. Co-owners Chris Andrews and Kim Bergman offered to help out.

“If it was not for them and their amazing generosity, the clinic would be nowhere close to where it is today,” Mantlik said.

Mantlik also had to adjust her goal. Initially she had planned on a 50-foot trailer with four dental chairs but wound up reducing that in half.

Besides the amount of money she would need to raise, the larger unit would have been difficult to fly overseas, Mantlik noted.

The unit would be used by IMAHelps wherever a need is identified and there are dentists to staff it.

Mantlik gets her master’s degree next month and then is scheduled to start a job in Milwaukee, so she is working with her team to develop a way to raise the rest of the money.

People who want to help her can go to engineeringsmiles.org.

“The team is graduating in two weeks and we are really working hard to have it completed,” Mantlik said. “I wanted it to be my graduation present.”

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