Dentists who careProgram puts smiles on the faces of low-income families.
By: Mike Enright, Alexandria Echo Press
In the modest office of the Alexandria Caring Hands Dental Clinic stands an empty room no bigger than 10 feet by 10 feet.
It used to be the patient waiting room, Clinic Coordinator Al Olsen said during a tour of the recently expanded facility.
Now, after adding an employee lounge and new, bigger waiting room, staff members hope the old one might be the future site of a fourth treatment room, he said.
“We’ve got the space,” Olsen said. “Now, we just need the money.”
For nearly two years, Caring Hands has provided basic dental care for people who otherwise couldn’t afford it.
Most of the nonprofit clinic’s patients are on Medical Assistance and can’t pay for treatment.
The state reimburses some of the costs. Caring Hands re-lies on private donations to cover the rest.
“We eat [the cost of] a fair amount of work,” Olsen said. “We’ve eaten $6,000 worth of services this year.”
From its basement location in the Marian Building on Cedar Street and 7th Avenue West, Olsen said the organization has treated 540 people since opening its doors, including 160 children.
He said the waiting list is more than 300 names long – and growing.
“We are finding that the need is greater and greater all the time, as more people find out about us,” Olsen said.
After waiting several months for her appointment, first-time Caring Hands patient Ashley said she was happy to be able to go to the dentist again.
She said she went regularly as a kid, but lack of insurance forced her to stop in recent years.
Fortunately, she said she’s stayed pretty healthy overall during the gap (except for a few cavities), something she credits to getting proper preventative care when she was younger.
Olsen said taking good care of your teeth is incredibly im-portant – especially for kids – and too often neglected.
“It’s proven that a healthy mouth leads to a healthy body,” he said.
Even with its recent expansion, Caring Hands does not have the money or the manpower to keep up with rising demands.
While it has the space for another treatment room, it can’t pay for the necessary equipment (most of the exist-ing equipment was donated).
Olsen said local donations have dropped off significantly recently because of the larger economic downturn.
Although its goal is to oper-ate four days a week with one staff dentist and a full staff of dental employees, currently Caring Hands is still only able to treat patients once a week, on Fridays.
The clinic has eight local volunteer dentists, along with several support personnel, mostly volunteers.
One of the clinic’s earliest volunteers was dental assis-tant Mary Jane Peterson.
Peterson, who’s been there from the start, said she got involved because of Mary Lou Olsen, Al’s wife and the driv-ing force behind Caring Hands.
The two work together, and when Peterson saw Mary Lou Olsen working so hard to get the clinic going initially, she said she wanted to help.
“It’s a lot of fun because it’s more laid back,” Peterson said. “Here, people are so appreciative of everything you do.”
Peterson said she really en-joys working with the kids who come in.
For many, it’s their first time ever visiting the dentist.
“Sometimes they don’t al-ways smile when they come in because they don’t know what’s going on,” she said, “but they smile when they leave.
“They find out it’s not such a bad place.”
ABOUT THE CLINIC
Caring Hands Dental Clinic
Location: Marian Building basement, 700 Cedar Street #44, Alexandria, MN 56308
Hours: Most Fridays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Contact: Call Al Olsen, Mon-day – Friday at (320) 815-5711