One of The Salvation Army’s few free dental clinics expands amid growing demand.
By Jared McKiernan –
It’s something Ana Guthrie grew accustomed to hearing. 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 figured it must’ve been the byproduct of some chronic drug habit.
“It’s amazing how people can be very judgmental, instead of just asking, ‘Hey what happened?’” she said. “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.”
Guthrie is one of an estimated 85 million Americans lacking 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 yes—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.”
About three years ago, Guthrie received a job offer to work part-time at The Salvation Army Corps Community Center in Oxnard, California. 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.
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. Sometimes, patients even arrive outside the clinic when it’s still dark out to ensure their spot for the day.
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.”
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 a cavity filling. 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.”