Many readers were touched when I wrote about the "extreme makeovers" that a Lexington modeling agency owner and her friends gave to 47-year-old twin sisters Hilda Bevins and Wilda Bryant.
The new hairstyles, clothes and makeup were great. But the most valuable help Bevins received was for her health, not beauty. Untreated tooth decay had left her in constant pain; a dentist and an oral surgeon donated their services to make it go away.
Oral health is a national problem, but it is worse in Kentucky than in most states. Untreated dental disease causes other health problems, hurts performance at school and on the job, and can make life miserable. Perhaps the biggest barrier to adequate dental care is cost.
"What do you do if you don't have insurance and you're barely making ends meet?" asked Dr. Robert Henry, who practices dentistry at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Lexington.
That question led Henry and others from Faith Lutheran and Calvary Baptist churches in 2006 to renovate a building at 216 South Limestone and open Mission Lexington Dental Clinic.
Since then, three more churches — Good Shepherd Episcopal, Maxwell Street Presbyterian and First Presbyterian — and local organizations have joined in support of the volunteer work by 28 dentists, other dental professionals and students from the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry.
"Dental pain can be devastating, and our true mission is to get people out of pain," said Henry, whose wife, Donita, a dental assistant, is the clinic coordinator. "This has been the hardest thing I've ever done — and the most rewarding."
Mission Lexington is one of several local organizations, including Southland Christian Church's Refuge Clinic, that provide dental services to low-income people without insurance. But the need is far greater than the services available, and it is only getting worse as treatment costs rise and fewer jobs offer affordable dental insurance.
Mission Lexington's waiting list exceeds 600 people. Patients must be at least 18 years old, live in Lexington, lack dental insurance and have income below the federal poverty level.
"If we had six times the resources, we could see six times the patients," said Christopher Benham Skidmore, executive director of Mission Lexington, which also operates a medical clinic at 1393 Trent Boulevard for uninsured working adults whose earnings are no more than 185 percent of the poverty level.
Mission Lexington will have a fund-raiser at 7p.m. July 23 at the Barrel House, 1200 Manchester Street, with food, music and a silent auction. Tickets to the Taste of Grace event are $35 in advance, $40 at the door. For more information, call (859) 273-5077.
The Mission Lexington Dental Clinic is in a building owned by Calvary Baptist that was restored with volunteer labor. Thanks to donations, a clinic worth about $300,000 was furnished for about $50,000. The clinic's annual operating budget is about $140,000, Skidmore said.
Care is free except for dentures, which are made for dental surgery patients at a fraction of the normal cost, thanks to volunteer work by dental technician Laurie Eads.
The high cost of dentistry kept Wyvitta and Grover Brooks from seeking treatment for years, until their painful mouths led them to Mission Lexington in 2009.
"These people are a godsend," said Grover Brooks, 55, whose restaurant cooking jobs never included dental insurance. "They're good, man; really thorough."
Wyvitta Brooks, 51, said she has always struggled with dental care because of her small mouth, a partial cleft palate and other birth defects. She hasn't had dental insurance since she took a buyout from a telecommunications company several years ago. Dental care wasn't affordable until she found Mission Lexington.
"I was so used to being turned away and going through so much pain," she said. "You don't realize until you get it fixed how much it affects your life. The people here are just wonderful."
Henry, the dentist, said that is typical of Mission Lexington patients. "Most of the people who come here have been in pain for months, if not a year, and this literally changes their lives," he said. "We're a very small answer to a major problem."