outreach program is leading toward expansion into St. Louis.

Dr. Michael Edwards, owner of Optima Dental Group in Union, said volunteer dentists and staff members are being sought now to help run an Optima Institute Outreach Dental Clinic scheduled to open in St. Louis next year.

He’s also seeking volunteers to help meet the demand for low-cost dental care that is growing at the current location in Union. That clinic is already scheduling patients for February 2014.

Additional volunteer dentists would allow the clinic to expand its hours and eliminate that wait time for some patients.

Edwards explained that the Optima Institute is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to lift people out of poverty while delivering private-care quality dentistry to the poor and underserved in Missouri.

Optima Institute’s Outreach Clinic has helped hundreds of patients, like Donna Delamore, who are unable to afford dental care.

“I lost all hope because of the amount of money it would have cost to fix my teeth,” she said. “Having a clinic like this means everything to me.

“I was getting really depressed about it because I was just waiting for my teeth to fall out and I knew I couldn’t afford to get dentures,” Delamore added. “I just wanted to crawl in a hole so no one could see me.”

The Optima Institute is the only clinic in Franklin County that offers top-quality dental care to uninsured residents in the area.

While it primarily serves Franklin, Warren and Gasconade counties, its services are available to all Missourians who are eligible for Medicaid or who can prove that a financial hardship prevents them from receiving dental care at a private practice, Edwards said.

The clinic offers procedures at minimal costs, 80 to 95 percent lower than traditional dental offices. For example, a root canal can cost up to $1,180 at most clinics, but is less than $200 at the Optima Institute.

Edwards says the outreach clinic serves about 40 patients each month.

Angela Necker, a patient at the clinic, said her teeth were “literally falling apart” due to a difficult pregnancy.

“I used to work in the dental field, and now I can’t get a job because my teeth aren’t good and I can’t afford to fix them,” she said. “I just pretty much stay on antibiotics all the time to keep the infections down.

“When I heard about this clinic I cried,” Necker added. “Seriously, I just cried because it gave me hope.”

According to Necker, it would cost more than $8,000 to fix her teeth at another clinic, and the cost at the Optima Institute will total less than $2,000.

“I am just so grateful, you don’t understand,” Necker said. “I just don’t know what I would do — I love the dental field, and not only am I losing my teeth, but I can’t work in the field with teeth like this.”

Dental School

The Optima Institute offers retreats, seminars and advanced level training for dental assistants, hygienists and dentists.

It is also in the final stages of opening a dental assisting school where half the class will have incomes below the poverty line. Assistants at the school will gain four to five times more hands-on training than other dental assisting programs.

“The programs we have, both the clinic and school, help people become aware of their creative potential,” Edwards said. “When they leave here, they have hope.”

He noted that the school and the clinic are “separate but symbiotic.”

“We’re giving people below the poverty line a traditional dental experience, and treating them they way people should be treated,” he said.

Seeing a Need

Edwards said he first saw the need for a clinic after hosting several free dental days at his Union practice. During those free dental days, Edwards and two other dentists donated more than $500,000 in quality dentistry for the needy in our surrounding communities over several years. They performed cleanings, fillings and extractions. Seeing people willing to wait up to 18 hours for a dental appointment was very humbling for Edwards and his entire staff.

“We’ve changed our philosophy to the belief that charity has to happen more than one time a year,” he said. “This whole program is lifting people out of poverty while serving the community. The more people who are out of poverty, the more we all benefit.”

One of those free days was specifically for children. Clinic staff notified area schools and daycare centers about the event and preregistered the children, so they wouldn’t have to wait in a long line for their appointments.

“The purpose of the free dental days and the Outreach Clinic is not only to provide quality dental care to the low-income and uninsured in our area but also to get them involved in their own health care,” Edwards said. “We educated each patient on the risks of poor oral hygiene and taught them how to effectively clean their teeth and take charge of their own health.”

Long-Term Goals

Edwards explained that he is now seeking volunteer dentists to help staff the Union and St. Louis clinics. He said if dentists donate one day a month, he only needs 10 dentists to staff the clinics. Letters are being sent this week to solicit the assistance of local dentists and their staff.

Once the Outreach Clinic in St. Louis is established, Optima Institute’s future plans call for operating temporary mobile dental clinics that will serve people in some of Missouri’s most needy communities.

Dentists, dental assistants and hygienists interested in this opportunity to serve the needy in our area can contact Dr. Edwards at this email address: DrEdwards@optimainstitute.org.