Free dental clinic reaches out to the underserved

North Carolina Missions of Mercy provides free dental care in WCU's Ramsey Center on July 14.
Photo by Ben Haines

Ricky Clyburn sits up in the chair and grins at his reflection in a hand-held mirror. Seeing his own smiling mouth now full of very real-looking teeth, he is overwhelmed with joy.

Derrick Deal, a dental technician who specializes in dentures, observes from a few feet away. Seeing what a difference has just been made in this person’s life, he remarks, “That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

North Carolina Missions of Mercy held a free dental clinic July 13-14 at Western Carolina University for people who cannot afford their own dental treatment. All of the dentists, dental hygienists, dental assistants, and dental technicians present were unpaid volunteers.

“It’s just fantastic,” said Clyburn, the recipient of free removable partial dentures. “They’re doing it from the heart.”

During the two-day clinic in WCU’s Liston B. Ramsey Regional Activity Center, over 340 people received dental treatment ranging from simple cleaning to vital procedures. One patient had 23 teeth extracted.

“It’s hard work, but when you walk out here, it’s everything,” said dental technician John Sammon, standing in the middle of the busy floor. “It gives me goosebumps just talking about it.

N.C. Missions of Mercy, a community outreach program of the North Carolina Dental Society, holds about 12 free dental clinics for underserved people throughout the state each year. The program previously hosted free dental clinics at the Jackson County Department of Public Health in Sylva since 2005.

“We ran out of space at the health department to hold everything for our dental lab,” said Karen Minton, Director of Blue Ridge Free Dental Clinic in Cashiers, which sponsored the event. “This is our first year at Western Carolina University and they’ve been so helpful to us.”

For local resident Vicki Allen, the free dental clinic was a tremendous blessing. After losing several of her upper front teeth years ago, without dental insurance or any way to pay for dentures, “I just stopped smiling,” she said.

Dental technicians outfitted Allen with removable partial dentures, custom-made right there in the Ramsey Center at no cost to her.

“I’m going to be able to smile again,” she said gleefully. “I have a grandson, three years old, and he’s going to see me smile.”

Mary Ann Grady, a lab volunteer, was happy to read a heartfelt letter of gratitude from Allen. “If we can give people a smile and bring them comfort, that’s the goal,” said Grady.

Though no plans are officially set, N.C. Missions of Mercy hopes to hold another free dental clinic at WCU in 2013. Lynne Keating, President of Blue Ridge Free Dental Clinic, encourages everyone in the local dental community to volunteer their services.

“We need as many dentists, dental hygienists, and dental assistants as possible,” said Keating. “The more dental professionals we have, the more people we can help.”

N.C. Missions of Mercy will next hold a free dental clinic August 10-11 at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. Anybody who wants to help can volunteer through the N.C. Missions of Mercy website.