Mobile dental clinic helps Colorado’s poor kids
Van provides services for Northwest Colorado's uninsured children
April 29, 2001
GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) – For a growing number of underprivileged Western Slope kids, going to the dentist might mean heading to a rodeo arena, a bank, a town hall or a school.
That’s where they find the big, brightly painted Miles for Smiles van, which houses a mobile dental clinic.
The 35-foot van has been lumbering around the Western Slope for a year and a half now and has had more than 2,000 patient visits for low-cost dental work, which was difficult to obtain in many areas before the van came to town.
“The problem was much bigger than we even anticipated,” said Nancy Shoyer, executive director of Kids in Need of Dentistry, a nonprofit, Denver-based agency that in 1999 added Miles for Smiles to a roster of dental programs that have operated on the Front Range since 1912.
Shoyer said many of the children who come to the van have never seen a dentist before. In fact, some of them have never seen a toothbrush, and some are in pain from dental problems, she said.
They have gone without tooth care through lack of education about dentistry and preventive dental care, or because dental work is not something many of the working poor can afford. At the van, they pay a $15 enrollment fee plus 10 percent of what the service would cost in the average dental clinic. Those who can’t pay aren’t turned away, said Carol Thurber, who coordinates the many volunteers needed to run the program.
There are 68 dentists and dental technicians who volunteer to help the van’s one staff dentist. Some agencies, including the Colorado State Patrol and several sheriff’s offices, also help by fielding calls for dental emergencies when the van isn’t in town. Those cases are seen by dentists who have volunteered to be on call at certain times.
Thurber said operating a mobile dental clinic that travels from mountains to deserts and from small farming towns to Aspen’s bedroom communities has added some unique challenges to filling cavities and pulling teeth.
In high-mountain towns like Telluride and Silverton, the Miles for Smiles staff has had a difficult time finding level places to park _ a necessity if the equipment is going to work properly. In Durango, the van’s water lines have frozen. The van often doesn’t have access to electric outlets and must rely on generators.
Shoyer said politics also have been an obstacle in some places. Some volunteer dentists object to helping in neighboring towns, and some town officials don’t understand why the van can’t stay in their communities longer.
“It’s been an interesting challenge,” Shoyer said. “It’s taken some work.” In spite of the obstacles, Miles for Smiles keeps growing, and last year provided dental care valued at more than a quarter of a million dollars.
And it is being watched around the world.
“We’re getting calls from all over the world wanting to know how to do this,” Shoyer said.
The program directors soon will be able to tell them.
Through a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant, program directors are compiling much-needed data on the dental needs of poor children.