By Donalee Moulton
In the heart of St. John’s sits a special place where marginalized people in the community gather every day. Some enjoy a hot shower, others seek much-needed relief from the sub-zero temperatures, still others dig in to a home-cooked meal. At The Gathering Place, guests can also get their hair done and access literacy programs…
And they can get a cavity filled by a dentist or their teeth cleaned by a dental hygienist at no charge.
“This is necessary healthcare for the most vulnerable people in our city. Many of these people are unable to access dental care for many reasons, both social and medical,” says Dr. Linda Blakey, a dentist in Mount Pearl and co-chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Dental Association’s (NLDA) dental outreach committee, which oversees the community clinic.
“Poor dental health affects their everyday lives,” she adds. “They cannot eat or work, and many are in chronic pain.”
The Gathering Place, established in 1994 by the Sisters of Mercy and the Presentation Sisters in response to the needs of those seeking food, is a welcome refuge and a source of hope and help for the more than 1,000 people in Newfoundland and Labrador’s capital city who are living on the streets or in hostile boarding houses.
Almost two years ago, the Newfoundland and Labrador Dental Association partnered with the Salvation Army and The Gathering Place to launch the province’s first free dental clinic in a community centre for their respective guests. Since those initial meetings, a dental clinic—with an operatory area for dentists and a hygiene clinic as well as a dental lab and reception area—has been established.
Here, individuals can access basic dental services including having cavities filled, teeth extracted and teeth cleaned. “We’re trying to do as much as we can for as many as we can,” says Dr. Stewart Gillies, a dentist in St. John’s and co-chair of the Dental Outreach Committee.
Donations from a local philanthropist and support from suppliers enabled the clinic to be equipped at cost, and dental professionals volunteer their time to staff the clinic, which is open five days a week from 9 am to 4 pm. “This is a full-time dental clinic. We’re making dentistry affordable, available, and accessible. We have an obligation to provide care,” says Dr. Gillies.
The ongoing goal is to ensure the dental clinic is self-sustaining, notes Dr. Paul Hurley, a dentist in Stephenville and NLDA president. In addition to services being provided at no cost by dentists and hygienists, some dental services are covered by the government. The money that is paid for these services is donated back to The Gathering Place to continue operating the clinic.
For dentists, the opportunity to help was embraced, says Dr. Blakey. “We do what we can for our own patients in our practices, but often the people at The Gathering Place and others who find themselves in similar situations can’t access our dental offices. Also they feel much more comfortable at The Gathering Place.”
So dentists in St. John’s go to those who can’t come to them. Today the clinic is booked three months in advance. “One dentist may see eight patients a day, or they may see four. It depends on the needs of the individual. Also, those who use the clinic have to become comfortable with this environment. They need time to understand their needs will be respected,” says Dr. Gillies.
A second clinic is also scheduled to open next year in a new building being constructed by the Salvation Army for their guests. “They will also house a dental clinic in which the NLDA will provide volunteer dentists as well. There will be options for these patients to receive dental services, and we are happy to help them out,” says Dr. Blakey.
Indeed, says Dr. Gillies, “this goes a long way to providing access to care for the entire population.”
Header credit: Quinn Theislande
Intro credit: Courtesy of Dr. Linda Blakey
Caption: The Reception area to the operatory area for dentists and a hygiene clinic.