Overcoming obstacles

Despite setbacks, Dental Coalition continues to help residents

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Jennifer Stauffer hated to brush her teeth because of the pain it inflicted on her inflamed gums.

The pregnant 19-year-old, who is covered by Medicaid, had spent months trying to get a dentist appointment. That's why the Craig resident, who said it would have been a financial hardship to drive to Denver for the treatment, was relieved to get an appointment Friday with the Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition's clinic in Craig.

"Not everybody can afford all the luxuries of life, that's why there are places like this," she said of the clinic that offers dental care to low-income, indigent and Medicaid patients. "It's bad enough that I have to drive to Steamboat Springs for prenatal visits. I can't afford the gas. If I hadn't gotten in here, I would have had to get the sensitivity toothpaste or something."

Stauffer's plight to find affordable dental care is like thousands of others in Northwest Colorado. It also is the driving force behind the nonprofit that would not die. Despite at least three major setbacks in the Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition's eight-year history, it now has an office to show off, thanks to the determination of its director, board and community members. Though the clinic desperately needs a dentist, assistants at the site can handle some of the load.

Debi Harmon, then Debi Garoutte, started work as the new director of the Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition on a Wednesday in March 2002. The next day, former director Robin McKenzie was arrested for embezzlement.

Without a phone in the office -- the phone company had long shut it off because of unpaid bills -- Harmon immediately realized she would have to look for a new job.

But it was a telephone call to Harmon's cell phone that stopped her in her tracks. At the time, only Harmon's children had the number to her phone. However, the woman on the other end was a desperate mother who had been up all night long with her 8-year-old daughter who was suffering from cavities.

"She asked me if I could help her," Harmon said. "I remember that touching me. That's when it really hit me what this was all about."

In the following weeks, half of the people on the 12-member board quit. Some said, "You'll never make it," Harmon recalled.

But community members banned together to raise money for the nonprofit. Disc jockeys from 93.7 KRAI-FM sponsored a fund-raising drive, which generated more than $15,000 and an enormous community outpouring. The donated funds were enough to keep the operation going, Harmon said.

In the ensuing months, the former director pleaded guilty to embezzling $30,000.

Hard times

"Impossible," Harmon said. "They said, 'No, it can't be done.' People have said that all along. I just ignore it."

In April 2004, a Miles for Smiles van told the board it was pulling out of town. The stopgap measure helped to serve the dental needs of hundreds of uninsured and underinsured children. However, the dental coalition already was earning grants to get its own clinic.

Once that was established in March of this year, dentist Joanna Hokanson signed on. But the dentist wasn't a good fit and quit a month later. A number of clients had appointments lined up, which the clinic has put on hold.

The phone still rings incessantly with parents trying to get appointments for their children. At this point, Harmon said the clinic is looking for a dentist in the interim. Having dentists to work a day a week or a couple days a months would help.

"It's not like we're asking for volunteer help," Harmon said. "It would be wonderful if we could even find someone to do this in the interim."

Continuing needs

Tonight, a Hayden mother will put her son to bed with two major cavities. When the 6-year-old awakes in the middle of the night howling in pain, his mom will give him more painkillers and rub Anbesol on his gums.

The boy, who has suffered from toothaches since November, had an appointment at the Craig-based dental clinic until its dentist left. Now, that appointment is on hold.

"It's horrible," the mom said. "We really need what this place has to offer."

The mom said she couldn't afford the trip to the Front Range to see a dentist who would accept Medicaid. Nor can she afford to pay the upfront costs of seeing an area dentist on her $400-a-month salary.

"I know there are a lot of people out there that are the same way," she said. "I know for a fact that (my son's) not the only one out there with this condition."

Harmon admits the numbers don't look good. There are more than 4,000 eligible Medicare patients in the five-county region of Moffat, Routt, Rio Blanco, Jackson and Grand counties. It is enough to keep three dentists busy fulltime, but there is a nationwide shortage of dentists.

Ensuring lasting smiles

Over the years, the dental coalition has survived because of an outpouring of community support. The open house on Tuesday recognizes that fact, Harmon said.

But, the effort needs rejuvenation, she said. Two board members are needed and a number of people are needed to staff committees. Harmon estimates the coalition needs about 30 volunteers to help the nonprofit with its goals of starting committees dedicated to its finances, clinic operations, education, planning and nominating new board members.

Board member Elaine Sullivan jumped on when the coalition was mired in the embezzlement scandal.

She said she wanted to get involved because she believed in the cause. The feat couldn't have been bridged without positive attitudes.

"We've had a few little bumps, " Sullivan said. "I think that it's important that you can't go in there and be slamming doors on your mind. We've been through some negative times."

Lambert "Chops" Pitney also was one who helped to earn money for the coalition. The Hayden man once walked town dressed in a sandwich board and collected money in buckets. He collected about $400.

"Sometimes you have to put yourself on the line," he said Friday. "I think that people thought I was trying to go after a cause."

Pitney said he did it because he believed in Harmon as a director and in offering dental care to low-income people.

"There's always a need for these kind of services for our children," he said. "If it took me once a week to parade around for some service, I'd be there."

Caring for Colorado Foundation has been one of the coalition's largest financial contributors. Susan Hill, the foundation's vice president of programs, said the foundation sees promise in the coalition's aim. "We liked the idea that the coalition wanted to do their homework," Hill said. "I think that this is a project that we are proud of and want to provide technical assistance where it's helpful. We really think that this is a project we can learn from and that other people can learn from."

Learning from the dental coalition may come one person at a time. For Jennifer Stauffer, it's the difference in how she feels about brushing her teeth.

"Now, at least I won't cringe to look at a toothbrush," she said.

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or ahatten@craigdailypress.com

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