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March 2024
Volume 45, Issue 3

Offering Hope Through Oral Health

Ronald Kehl, DDS, MPH

Father Joe's Villages Dental Program has been on the front lines of providing dental care to unhoused San Diegans for more than 10 years. During this time, the program has evolved into a cornerstone of healthcare accessibility for those who might otherwise be left behind.

Regardless of one's religious or philosophical beliefs or stance on ethics and morals, caring for others is a human principle. It transcends religion, philosophy, race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Everyone needs help at one time or another.

Nobel Peace Prize winning polymath Albert Schweitzer said, "Seek always to do some good, somewhere. Every [person] has to seek in [their] own way to realize [their] true worth. You must give some time to your fellow [human beings]. For remember, you don't live in a world all your own. Your brothers [and sisters] are here, too."

Rooted in the belief that dental health is an integral part of overall well-being, the program at Father Joe's Villages addresses the diverse needs of its patients, ensuring that no one is left without the care they need. Approximately, 1,000 people benefit from the dental program every year. This number is a testament to the pressing need for affordable and accessible dental services in the San Diego community and the program's unwavering dedication to meeting this demand.

As in many regions of the United States, many of the individuals who receive dental services at this mission have been neglected or rejected for treatments in other places in the past. Thus, many patients have suffered for years with tooth pain, gross dental decay, chronic oral infections, and low self-esteem. Poor oral health relates to a corresponding lack of motivation to obtain work or better one's self. Many people with unhealthy, unappealing teeth report they, themselves, feel unappealing and have no worth.

Providing both preventive and restorative dental treatment has allowed those who have suffered from poor dental health to finally feel like they have a dental home, a place to go that offers education, solutions, and treatments to remedy long-neglected oral health problems.

In addition to the mission's physical dental clinic, its Street Health clinicians often encounter patients in the community that need dental attention. We provide direct referrals to our own dentistry department. Our outreach workers can even offer the patient a bus pass to the clinic if travel/transportation is a barrier to care.

The dental program helps to break the cycle of poverty. Good oral health is a stepping stone to better employment prospects and overall self-esteem. By providing these services, the program not only alleviates pain and discomfort but also empowers individuals to pursue a brighter future and regain control of their lives.

People can change, and we at Father Joe's Villages witness this often. Time and time again, through the rendering of these dental treatments, patients have developed a sense of hope. They are able to hope that things will get better, and with the barrier of poor oral health removed, they often do get better.

In fact, what happens in this small, unassuming dental clinic has far-reaching effects on patients and staff alike. This is the real miracle: the production of hope.

Wherever your community may be, having concern for those who are less fortunate and a desire to assist can go a long way and are no doubt needed. Dental professionals offer a unique and valuable skill, and their services are typically highly coveted in shelters and other similar places accommodating individuals experiencing homelessness. As a dentist, why not consider helping out somewhere in your local community to alleviate and prevent dental disease in someone who lacks the resources for proper dental healthcare. As one patient at our program said recently, "The dentists at the dental clinic were so sympathetic and compassionate. They didn't make me feel guilty or like a second-class citizen. They didn't give me a handout; they gave me a hand up."

The hope produced at Father Joe's Villages is contagious. It is not what we are doing that is so special; it is what happens to all those involved that is remarkable. And that's why we do the work.

About the Author

Ronald Kehl, DDS, MPH
Dental Director, Father Joe's Villages,
San Diego, California

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