At 9:30 a.m., it’s already standing-room-only in the waiting room at Charlotte’s Agape Dental Ministry.
And by the looks on the faces of these new patients, one thing brought them all here: pain.
Edward Walsh, 47, is an out-of-work carpenter who hasn’t had dental insurance – or treatment – in years. Now, he says, “my teeth are shot,” and the discomfort he’s lived with the past few years has graduated to agony.
So here he is, waiting with the others to see the dentists who donate their time and expertise – along with the other volunteers – at this Christian-based free dental office on Idlewild Road. “It’s great for people down on their luck like myself,” Walsh says.
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Since the ministry opened in May 2013, it has helped more than 1,100 people who needed fillings, extractions and X-rays.
Working two to three days a week out of a small house owned by neighboring New Hope Baptist Church, the ministry has a chaplain on duty. He meets with patients who also want to pray, receive a copy of the New Testament, and add their names or loved ones’ to a list given to a prayer group.
“We don’t care who you are, where you came from, what you’re doing – if you need dental help or spiritual help, we’re there for you,” says Elizabeth Locklare, an nurse anesthetist for 27 years who’s now the ministry’s executive director.
She says people who call the ministry because they have nowhere else to turn don’t always know how to pronounce its official name. Agape, a Greek term for a form of love, is pronouned a-gah-pay.
“It gives me an opportunity to explain that it means God’s unconditional love, and that’s what we’re all about,” says Locklare, a member of Cornerstone Baptist Church. “We couldn’t do this without God helping us.”
The ministry almost had to close not long after it opened because of a lack of donations. It costs $30,000 a year to keep the ministry running with equipment and supplies that can be very expensive.
After its financial needs went public, contributions swelled. Still, Locklare says, that surplus could be wiped out if the ministry had to replace one piece of equipment
In addition to ongoing donations, the ministry hopes to attract more volunteers. It has two dentists now, and two oral surgeons who come when they can. More dentists would mean the ministry could stay open Monday through Friday.
Locklare says bringing aboard volunteer hygienists would let the ministry expand its offerings to teeth-cleaning. There’s also a need for dental assistants, receptionists, financial consultants, medical consultants – and maybe somebody to fix the leaky roof.
Some come in tears
On this busy day last week, the hallway is filled with volunteers and patients darting in and out of side rooms.
In cubicles and at tables, some volunteers check patients’ blood pressure while others examine financial records to make sure they qualify for free help – the ministry prefers to treat those at or below twice the federal poverty level. That translates into roughly $23,000 for an individual or $48,000 for a family of four.
And yet, in this still-struggling economy, the ministry works on a case-by-case basis.
“Sometimes people come in crying,” says Steve Wood, the ministry’s office manager. “And we had people here from the SouthPark area. He’d lost his job, they were about to lose their house and he suddenly realized, ‘I don’t have any dental insurance and my tooth is killing me.’ ”
Besides being office manager, Wood also helps supply the dentists, grabbing syringes and Novacaine. “This has kind of become my church,” Wood says of the ministry. “You see a lot of kindness.”
At the facility, Dr. Ed Johnson hovers over the “gray chair,” as the volunteers call it, drilling and filling teeth.
In the next room, home to the “red chair,” Dr. Bob Seymour, an oral surgeon, treats 22-year-old Dina Canales. She needs all four of her wisdom teeth pulled.
Seymour says his ministry patients, though usually in pain, often make a point of expressing their thankfulness.
“Much more so than in private practice,” he says. “Here, these people appreciate what they get done.”
Back in the hallway and inside the X-ray room, Erica Keogh, a volunteer dental assistant who is applying to dental school, talks with patients in Spanish. She gives one of them a take-home pain-relief package with Tylenol, ibuprofen, an ice pack, sponges – and a tea bag. Biting on a wet tea bag can help with bleeding and pain.
“I really like the patient contact,” Keogh says. “If they’re here, it means they’re moving in the right direction in their lives.”
As the morning gives way to early afternoon, Kimberly McAlpine, 31, is ready to leave the ministry after having three teeth pulled. It was her first visit to a dentist in 10 years.
“A couple of them had been sensitive for about six years, and I just grinned and beared it,” says McAlpine, an unemployed restaurant worker. “So it means the world to me to have a place like this.”