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Interfaith clinic provides dental care to working poor

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A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry

Carol Azamtarrahian and two of her children are patients at the Interfaith Dental Clinic.
Feb. 8, 2006

By Lilla Marigza*

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) — Your smile is often the first thing people notice about you. A ministry started by a local United Methodist church is giving uninsured Tennesseans something to smile about.

Carol Azamtarrahian works 40 hours a week as a preschool teacher. Her employer provides dental insurance, but she can’t afford the premiums. Until recently, she qualified for state-sponsored dental care, but budget cuts eliminated the program.

“I used to be on TennCare, but they cut our services, so that’s why I came here,” she says.

Nashville’s Interfaith Dental Clinic serves people like Carol and her family. Its mission is to help the city’s working poor — people who work full time but have trouble making ends meet.

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A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry

Choung Kong has his teeth checked at the Interfaith Dental Clinic.
“This clinic hits people who fall between the cracks,” says Dr. Tom Underwood, a dentist who helped found the clinic. “In other words, if they have no income, if they don’t work, the families can have indigent care. If a family actually works and doesn’t have insurance, they don’t have enough to take care of their family needs and their dentistry at the same time because dentistry is very expensive.”

Payment for services is on a sliding scale based on income, and all patients must show proof of full-time employment. The clinic hours are designed to accommodate the special needs of clients. The clinic serves 1,200 people a year.

“I was able to come here because they are open at night and it’s easier for me to come after hours from working and pick up my children from school,” Azamtarrahian says. She and her husband have five children, two of whom qualify for the clinic; the others are over 18.

The interfaith clinic began in 1993 in a broom closet in the basement of West End United Methodist Church. Underwood, a church member, posed the idea after several mission trips to provide dental care in Third World countries.

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A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry

The Interfaith Dental Clinic in Nashville, Tenn., provides dental care to the city’s working poor.
“I worked in several foreign countries, and when we got back to Nashville, we realized the people here were in worse shape than most all of the other countries,” Underwood says.

Underwood gives much of the credit for the success of the ministry to the clinic’s executive director, Dr. Rhonda Switzer, a dentist and member of West End United Methodist. Switzer supervised the program as it outgrew the church basement. Today, the interfaith clinic has a state-of-the-art facility, a full-time staff and 200 volunteer doctors.

Switzer is one of the clinic’s two full-time dentists. “I am very proud of the Methodist Church for starting this,” she says. “It is, I think, pretty novel and they should be proud it started here, and it’s a model for other churches to follow.”

Switzer’s job is part medicine and part public relations, and she works far beyond the usual 9-to-5. It takes a lot of money and volunteers to keep the program running.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry

Dr. Tom Underwood is a founding dentist of the Interfaith Dental Clinic.
“If we have the opportunity to tell our story? whether it’s to a Sunday school class or from the pulpit or at a Wednesday supper ? I will be there,” she says.

She credits her faith with helping her handle the demands of the work, and her church with developing her leadership skills. Years of Sunday school and singing in the choir have nurtured her for a life of public speaking, she says. “Those are skills I learned at church and not necessarily at school. I think that’s pretty cool.”

The clinic relies solely on donations to raise its million-dollar annual operating budget.

Board members say with private health care costs skyrocketing, public need is growing. They hope more churches will recognize the need for dental ministry not just in developing countries but in the communities they serve.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry

As executive director, Dr. Rhonda Switzer, has overseen the clinic's growth from a church basement to a state-of-the-art facility.
“You know there are so many people out there that you can change their lives if they could just afford to have the dental care,” Underwood says.

Carol Azamtarrahian is grateful for the help she has received. She came to the clinic in pain and missing teeth. She now has a new smile, including extensive bridgework and crowns. Her children are also getting regular checkups and cleanings. She hopes the good oral hygiene habits learned here will stay with them for life.

“I just know preventive care is the most important,” she says, “and if they keep up with it ? they won’t be in the situation I got into.”

*Marigza is a freelance producer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Jan Snider or Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5474 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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