The patient load at David Kwon's University City dental practice has grown thinner as the recession sedates most business sectors.
Some regulars have stopped booking cleanings and check-ups because they lost insurance.
"These are middle-class people," Kwon said. "You can't imagine the need in the indigent population."
Kwon has seen the neediest of patients, too, as a volunteer for a free mobile dentistry unit that visited Mecklenburg County one week a month until November last year.
Some of the adults he treated for painful infections and massive cavities had never received routine dental care. Others ended up at the mobile unit once their insurance disappeared.
Kwon said he hopes to continue serving uninsured patients if the monthly dental facility can find a permanent home later this year at New Hope Baptist Church in east Charlotte.
The church is asking the Charlotte City Council to rezone a residential property at 7841 Idlewild Road, on the church campus, to house the proposed Agape Dental Ministry. The City Council is scheduled to hear comments on the request July18.
"We're the last line of defense," Kwon said of the volunteer service. "By the time they get to us, it's not a little filling here and there. We try to get them out of pain."
In 2002, a group of nurses organized as the Mecklenburg Baptist Nursing Fellowship. They collected donations and recruited volunteers for the free mobile dental ministry.
The donations brought the N.C. Baptist Men's Medical/Dental Bus Ministry to Mecklenburg County for one week each month for eight years.
About 4,420 Mecklenburg patients were treated on the bus between October 2002 and November 2010.
That included 489 patients in 2010. The services they received had an estimated value of more than $210,000, said Elizabeth Locklare, who expects to become executive director for Agape.
But the mobile services were hardly enough to meet demand.
"Every month I would get 300 to 400 calls," Locklare said. "We couldn't see that many in a week. We usually saw 48 to 65."
Since then, Dr. Robert Seymour donated his office equipment for the ministry when he retired from his dental practice.
That donation allowed the nurses to plan for a permanent location for the mobile service. New Hope Baptist Church offered to house the facility on its campus.
With the donated equipment, the Agape would be able to offer teeth cleaning and X-rays in addition to extractions and fillings.
"We can operate a whole month for less than it cost to bring the bus here," Locklare said. "We can see more patients. We're going to have the capability of giving more care."
Locklare estimates it will cost $35,000-$50,000 to open at New Hope. Locklare estimates the volunteers would serve 70 to 80 patients a month, depending on the number of dentists and other who volunteer.
"It's going to happen," Locklare said. "I'm not sure when or how. This is God's project. We're just doing what he wants us to do."