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Rolling dental clinic is filling a need

(ran ET edition of TAMPA & STATE)

For many low-income families, seeing a dentist is a luxury they can't afford. Instead, they live with the pain or the infection, sometimes for years.

Realizing a need, the Florida Southern Baptist Convention sponsors a ministry that literally brings a dentist to people in need, free of charge. It travels throughout the state in a converted school bus, making two stops a year in Pinellas County: a week in Clearwater during the summer and a week in St. Petersburg during the fall.

"Our county has some serious pockets of people who live below the poverty line," said Cathy Lloyd, project coordinator for the Largo-based Suncoast Baptist Association. "This mobile dental unit is aimed at helping people between the ages of 5 and 65 who don't have dental coverage from any other source. They are the people who fall through the cracks."

Since Monday, the 40-foot bus has been parked near Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Clearwater. Before it leaves today, about 60 people will have had cavities filled or teeth pulled. Those with more serious problems will have been referred to an oral surgeon on call through the Suncoast Baptist Association.

This is the 14th year Mt. Carmel has been a site for the project.

Residents are reached by word of mouth and through fliers distributed by the Suncoast Baptist Association and Mt. Carmel. As people call in, they are given appointments.

"Each year, we also recruit about 10 area dentists and dental assistants who volunteer for four-hour shifts," Lloyd said.

One volunteer, Dr. Fred Klepes, a Largo periodontist, praised the project.

"I heard about this through a group of Christian dentists to which I belong," he said. "I think it's a wonderful thing to offer. For me, personally, it's a way to give something back to the community which has given me so much."

He said he had treated a migrant worker whose tooth had broken off five years ago.

"The man told me he had pulled out other problem teeth with pliers, but couldn't get at this one," Klepes said. "We pulled it for him."

Sophia Allen came to have a tooth pulled.

"The entire staff treated me with respect, and the dentist was exceptionally nice," she said. "I will definitely be back next year."

The 16-year-old bus was converted into a complete dental facility several years ago. With power supplied by a generator, it has two dental stations, two X-ray machines, fiber-optic instruments and a machine to sterilize the instruments. Disposable gowns, masks and gloves also are provided to the dentists.

"We have all the instruments to fill, bond or pull teeth," explained Franklin Russell, a retired Baptist minister, who drives the bus to various sites in Florida. "All the dentist has to do is show up with his or her assistant."

Russell and his wife, Jo Ann, live in Cocoa and spend about 40 weeks a year on the bus. Their responsibilities include driving, maintaining and cleaning it, and sterilizing the equipment for the dentists. They usually work 16-hour days and stay with local families wherever they go.

Although the Russells have been in charge of the unit for five years, the ministry itself was established in 1973 to serve migrant workers and the homeless. It has been expanded to include all low-income people.

"Our services are based on pain, not paying," Franklin Russell said. "We don't try to preach, but want to show people that we love them and God loves them."