Making a Difference Close to Home: Working at a Volunteer Dental Clinic in Kentucky

by Carole Linhart for Global Dental Relief. First published December 20, 2023.

Left to right: Volunteers Gloria Coles, Carole Linhart, and Suzanne Maslo.

As a human in an imperfect world, it can be easy to be upset by the hardship that we see around us. A lot of events seem to be out of our control as individuals. But what if I told you that you can make a difference in a community close to home, one child at a time?

When I first became aware of Global Dental Relief’s volunteer dental clinic in Jenkins, Kentucky, I had to refresh my memory and look up where exactly Kentucky was. As a west-coast native, I don’t pay much attention to the southern part of our country and I thought it was right next to Florida! When I finally went there for the first time in the Spring of 2021, I was surprised to hike among groves of rhododendrons (who knew that Washington State’s flower could grow over there) and to see snow on the ground (it’s right next to Florida after all…). Kentucky is a beautiful state.

Global Dental Relief team with SmileFaith Clinic director in front of Jenkins clinic.

I enjoyed my time there so much in fact, that I eagerly went back to Kentucky in October of 2023. I’m not sure why I look forward to the Jenkins, Kentucky clinic so much since I have been to all the other exotic locations, and they are fabulous places, such as India, Kenya, Cambodia, Nepal, Guatemala and Mexico. Maybe it’s because Kentucky is close to home and there is such a great need there. I feel like I am making a small difference in my backyard. And in a lot of ways, visiting Kentucky is like visiting a different country because of the different culture and climate achieved by traveling across the country! I live in a bubble in the Pacific Northwest and I rarely think about people in our own country who can’t afford nutritious food, who may never break out of their cycle of poverty, who don’t understand the value of early dental care.

Becky Bay screening patient in Jenkins, Kentucky school.

And, maybe the reason that makes these trips most enjoyable – the people. The volunteer dentists, hygienists, assistants, dental students, and all the non-dental support people that go to this special part of the country. They give up a week of their vacation time, often closing down their offices, to stay in a humble guest house in a town that has one restaurant and two dollar stores, where the main activity at night is sitting around the living room playing games and getting to know people who will never again be strangers.

I am not a dentist, only a patient, and I take for granted that I can ring up a dental office and get an urgent need met within hours or schedule a cleaning for next month. On my service trip with GDR, I heard several families bemoan the fact that they couldn’t get an appointment with a dentist for a year. Of all the GDR locations around the globe, from what I have experienced over the past six years traveling to their clinics, I have most enjoyed the experience of giving back in Kentucky.

Carole Linhart teaches oral health instruction to children in Jenkins, Kentucky.

During this clinic, I had the honor of meeting more of the truly caring people in the two schools in Jenkins who teach and care for children in this former coal-mining community. Four of us went directly into the schools to visit with the children and teach oral health instruction:  Becky the leader, Suzanne the (left-handed) dentist, Gloria a frequent GDR flier and retired pediatric nurse, and me, a non-dental person who feels like part of a community with this group. We met the children in the elementary and middle and high schools; armed with spotted stuffed dogs, giant toothbrushes, and a desire to engage the kids enough so that they would bring the message home to their parents and grandparents. That was so much fun.

We also met with Angie, a manager for Jenkins School District, several times in the elementary school Resource Room. We provided dental exams and follow-up recommendations for the children and painted on fluoride varnish. The Resource Room was stacked to the ceiling with boxes of new shoes and around the corner were boxes stuffed with easy-to-prepare foods. 

Carole Linhart teaches oral health instruction to children in Jenkins, Kentucky.

There were bookcases with classroom supplies and shelves with personal hygiene items for any child to access privately. I saw all those the first day and thought that that was a great thing to provide to the kids. But the need for that Resource Room didn’t really sink in until the third day when we showed up in the morning and a young boy was sitting near the stack of shoes waiting to replace the too-old and worn and probably too-small tennis shoes. I was thinking that the only place he could get new shoes was from this school resource. I felt sad and somewhat guilty that my children never had to ask for shoes or anything else.

In March 2024, GDR will return to Jenkins with another team, me included, to keep chipping away at the education and the need to use those new toothbrushes and get regular dental checkups.

It is such an honor working with the GDR team. I truly enjoy getting to know all the people who are on board with this mission – such a simple one – access to dental care. It is a small thing that many people take for granted. Through teamwork and the acts of volunteer dentists, hygienists, assistants and general volunteers, we are improving the health and lives of children in need.

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