Organized by the North Carolina Dental Association, Eblen Charities, A-B Tech and many others, the grassroots effort aims to help those in need who can't afford private care. And judging by the turnout, that need is significant: Folks started showing up at 3 p.m. the day before the clinic opened, hoping to get free cleanings, fillings, extractions and other care. By the afternoon of Aug. 5, hundreds had already been treated by the approximately 50 dentists and hygienists who came from all over the state to volunteer their services, organizers said.
Hundreds more continued to wait in line, including Kevin Riley, a veteran who showed up at the community college at 2:30 a.m. after walking an hour and a half from his home across town.
"I figured I'd be first to get here but there was already about a hundred people here," he reported. "But overall it's well worth it. Because I have a toothache. They're going to restore it. It's been positive, friendly for the most part, well organized."
Although he qualifies for other free and reduced medical care at the VA Medical Center, he explained that, for getting dental care, "this is the only choice I have."
Others shared similar stories as they waited on the gym's bleachers.
Unemployed Asheville resident Sylvia Donaldson had been there since 4 a.m., waiting to have a filling restored.
"I had no other place to turn, and I heard about this, and it was a blessing. I was happy to be able to come here, and I don't care how long I have to wait." she explained. "I heard some people bitching about how long it's taken, but I'm not going to kick a gift horse in the mouth."
Donaldson was on track to have her dental work done by the end of the day, but not everyone was so lucky.
Rilla Wisor arrived at the clinic with her family from their home in Old Fort at 11 p.m. the previous night, but that was too late for her to get the partial dentures she was hoping for. Instead, she spent the day knitting as she waited for her children to get care she estimated would save her "hundreds, if not thousands of dollars."
Sign of the times
Although organizers touted the clinic as a success, they acknowledged the high turnout was a sign of economic hardship and health-care dysfunction.
"People's funds are tight. The economy's terrible. People can't afford to go to the dentist," reported Bill Waddell of Eblen Charities. He noted that the line was bigger this year than it was at last year's free clinic. He said he expected even more people to show up Saturday.
Bill Murdock, executive director of Eblen, said he hopes that, in the end, the clinic will be able to serve over 800 people and offer $500,000 in free care.
"The need is there, so I think this is a very good way to address it. It's a tail of our time right now. But it gives everyone an opportunity to come together," he explained. "It's a wonderful testament to our community."
Rep. Heath Shuler, who was present at the clinic and serves as the program's chair, agreed.
"When you have thousands of people show up for free dental care, then we've got a problem. ... But this is what makes America strong, helping our neighbors," he said. "This makes you feel proud to live in Western North Carolina, that we take care of our own."
The clinic will be open again Aug. 6 from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the gym of A-B Tech's Coman Student Center. Care is offered on a first come, first served basis. Snacks, water and lunch will be provided to those waiting in line.
Here are a few images from Aug. 5:
Photos by Jonathan Welch
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