Since 1999, The Salvation Army has operated a free dental clinic to uninsured adults throughout Ventura County, California.

It’s 4 a.m. on a Tuesday in Oxnard, California—the roads expectedly quiet, the air crisp. A handful of people form a line outside of The Salvation Army Corps Community Center on Wooley Road. They’re not trying to secure a shelter bed, nor are they looking for a hot meal.

They’re hoping to get their teeth worked on.

And for them, showing up at The Salvation Army’s free dental clinic (absurdly) early is the only way they’ll lock up one of eight appointments for the day.

 A report by the U.S. Surgeon General in 2000 noted the importance of oral examinations for detecting early signs of nutritional deficiencies and systemic disease.

An estimated 164 million work hours each year are lost due to oral disease.

SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

The scene is a telltale indicator of the lengths to which some will now go to get dental care. According to a recent estimate, 85 million Americans lack dental coverage. The search for dental care has become an endurance challenge for many due to the downsizing or elimination of much of the government-funded dental coverage and the dearth of clinics that cater to the uninsured.

The effects of living without dental coverage can run deep, as poor oral health has been linked to the development of heart disease, blockages of blood vessels, strokes, and even decreased confidence.

“Oral health changes, such as tooth loss, can have a profound effect on a patient’s quality of life,” said Dr. Rajesh Vijayanarayanan, Clinical Director and Principal Dental Surgeon at the EvoDental Implant Centre. “Patients find it difficult to come to terms with tooth loss, being less confident about themselves and more inhibited in daily activities.”

Ana Guthrie knows this all too well. After learning she had a tumor on one of her teeth, she had to have an emergency extraction performed—by a medical doctor. At the time, she had no dental insurance to have it replaced. So for years after the procedure she had a missing tooth, and many people, she found, jumped to their own conclusions.

“They asked me, ‘how many years have you been doing drugs?’” she said. “It’s amazing how people can be very judgmental, instead of just asking, ‘Hey what happened?’ That really broke my self-esteem down. A tooth doesn’t identify you. But it’s amazing how people can identify you by that tooth.”

About three years ago, Guthrie received a job offer to work part-time at The Salvation Army in Oxnard. Soon after she started, she had a conversation with a member of the Advisory Board.

“She walked up to me and asked, ‘Hey, what happened?’ And I said, ‘Wow…Someone got it.’ But by asking that one question, I opened up and told her [about my tooth]. She said, ‘Hey, I think we can do something for you.’” Little did Guthrie know—that help was right down the hall from her new workstation.

The clinic serves everyone from students to veterans to those living on the streets, providing everything from simple extractions to fillings.

Since 1999, the Oxnard Corps has operated a free dental clinic to uninsured adults throughout Ventura County. Open twice a week from 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m., the clinic serves eight patients a day on a first-come, first-served basis, providing everything from simple extractions to fillings.

To help more clients get care, the clinic recently expanded its physical space, setting up a second office and dental chair for Dr. John McNeil to serve two clients simultaneously.

It’s unbelievable how this program makes a huge difference in people’s lives,” said Corps Officer Lt. Manuel Gaytán. There’s a great need for this because not everyone here has coverage. We serve the homeless, veterans, but a lot of different types of people come. We’ve got young adults working part-time, students…a lot of the people from the farms come here too.”

“I’ve had the opportunity to pray with people right here in this clinic. I tell them that we care for them, we care for our community, and that’s how we demonstrate the love of Christ.” –Lt. Manuel Gaytán

Oxnard is one of the nation’s top strawberry producers, with agriculture being one of the top contributors to the local economy, yet many who work in the fields make too little to afford quality dental care. When they visit the corps, they often need more than just dental care. In that sense, Gaytán said the dental clinic’s been a great touchpoint to introduce patients to other services offered at the corps.

“We always let them know that they can volunteer here too,” he said. “We introduce them to the corps. I’ve had the opportunity to pray with people right here in this clinic. I tell them that we care for them, we care for our community, and that’s how we demonstrate the love of Christ.”

Down the hall, Guthrie, who works as a teacher assistant for the corps’ after-school program, can’t stop smiling. Since she visited the clinic and had a crown placed on her missing tooth, her confidence has returned in full.

“I remember at my high school reunion, they asked, ‘What’s the thing you remember most about Ana?’ And someone wrote down, “How she’d light up the room with her smile.’

“It’s funny because I didn’t smile for so many years,” she said. “I was so ashamed.”

As she laughs in her office, it now seems a distant memory.

“They brought back my smile,” she said. “People ask me, ‘Why do you volunteer all the time?’ Because I’m so thankful, and I’m grateful.”