Mother Teresa challenged us to “always meet with a smile because a smile is the beginning of love”. But what do you do when you don’t like your smile because you couldn’t afford regular visits to the dentist or you weren’t able to practice good dental hygiene throughout your life? ? You head to the cashiers for an appointment with the free Blue Ridge dental clinic and begin a healthy regiment of care for your teeth and your smile!
The clinic is a fully operational dental practice whose motto is “Restore Lives, One Tooth at a Time!” Unlike a traditional dental office where you present proof of insurance and receive an invoice at the end of your service, patients are seen by one of 14 volunteer dentists who volunteer their time and expertise to eligible patients.
Among the team of volunteer dentists is Connestee Falls resident Dr. Robert (Bob) Henkel, who found the clinic a “perfect match” during his retirement years.
“I found Blue Ridge Free Dental Clinic to be the right opportunity for me,” he shared. “His Christian nature and mission were exactly what I was looking for. Every Thursday since January, I volunteer to treat patients. Being there made me realize how important this clinic is to western North Carolina.
It was founded in 2003 by a group of local churches who wanted to meet the dental needs of underserved people in this area. With funding provided by the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina, the clinic began operations with a unique three-day clinic and provided 300 patients with free dental care.
Today, the clinic has performed over 70,000 procedures and has over 23,000 patient visits – worth over $11 million. Its expanded service now includes emergency, restorative and preventive dental care, and its doors are open five days a week.
“Our volunteer dentists are the heart of our organization,” said Executive Director Melanie D. Jones. “In the past month alone, Dr. Henkel has performed 76 procedures worth over $16,000 – at no cost to the patient. They donate their expertise for procedures including fillings, extractions, crowns, root canals, and even dentures. Beyond the procedures performed by our volunteers, they offer encouragement and hope to our patients – we are truly grateful for their kindness! she continued.
The Blue Ridge Free Clinic isn’t the first time Dr. Henkel has given back.
Her desire to use her skills to help others dates back to her years as a dental student. While in college, he had a life-changing experience volunteering with the indigent migrant farmworker community in Colorado. It was there that he witnessed a level of poverty, and the impact of not having proper medical and dental care on a person’s life, that he simply could not shake. “This experience really affected me for the rest of my life,” he said.
Throughout her life and career, Henkel has participated in local outreach clinics through her church. He worked closely with a domestic abuse shelter in Boston where he provided free dental care to victims and their children. It also provided children – who are still affected by radiation-induced deformities resulting from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine – with free dental care through the Chernobyl Children’s Project.
Many of Dr. Henkel’s patients at the clinic are recovering from addiction, particularly from methamphetamine abuse – a highly addictive drug that damages teeth and gums. Between patients’ low socio-economic status, poor diet, barriers to a healthy lifestyle, and the cost of a visit to the dentist, the clinic is more than a “mouth buoy”, it’s a life buoy !
The average annual income of some inhabitants of mountain areas is below the national poverty line. Add that to the cost of a single visit to the dentist, which can range from $500 to $1,000, and it’s almost more than an entire month’s salary. The clinic removes the financial burden so that patients can receive care.
“It was an incredible experience. The generosity and enthusiasm of all professionals is contagious. I am truly blessed to be able to give back and use my dental and surgical skills to help those in need. The satisfaction of giving my time, my skills and my financial support has proven to be more than rewarding. I feel lucky to have found something that used my previous skills,” Henkel said.
“Dr. Henkel is wonderful! He is fully engaged and motivated by his compassion for those in need. Our patients love his kind and supportive personality. He has helped strengthen our organization by working with local and national entities to obtain funding, providing donations and new partnerships,” explained Jones.
Dr. Henkel graduated in 1990 from Northwestern University Dental School. For 28 years, he cared for patients in the Boston area through his general dentistry practice where he focused on reconstructive dentistry and oral and periodontal surgery.
In addition to volunteering at the clinic, Henkel and his wife Liz are members of Cedar Mountain Rotary, a satellite club of Pisgah Forest Rotary. Earlier this year, Henkel rode his Honda GoldWing and provided support assistance to riders participating in the Assault on the Carolinas challenge. He helped lead cyclists to the finish line safely and rode 250 miles on his bike.
For Henkel, who “really enjoys helping others rebuild their smile and restore function,” he sees confidence blossoming in his patients and how they give love through their smiles!
For more information, visit the Blue Ridge Free Dental Clinic website at www.brfdc.org.