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Mission Smiles Rallies Volunteers to Deliver Free Dental Care to Those Who Need It Most

Mobile dentistry increases access to oral health care for Tampa Bay’s most in-need communities thanks to volunteers like Dr. Kathleen Barlow

Kathleen Barlow performs X-rays on behalf of Mission Smiles

Dr. Kathleen Barlow spends her weekdays caring for underserved populations as a dentist at a federally qualified community health center (FQHC) in Hillsborough County, Fla. And on weekends, she doesn’t let up: She traverses the county as a volunteer with Mission Smiles Mobile Dental Clinic, bringing oral health care to those living near poverty. Launched in 2011, the nonprofit partners with local churches, ministries and daycares to provide mobile dental clinics to homeless and low-income populations around the Tampa Bay area. Dr. Barlow’s team is made up entirely of volunteers — besides the organization’s president and bookkeeper — including dental students who come through on rotation to give their time. 

National research shows Americans support nontraditional care settings as part of the solution to improving oral care access and outcomes. With the Preventistry® approach, we are redefining prevention and care for everyone by looking beyond the dental chair and into the community for approaches that keep people healthy. Dr. Barlow is a great example of Preventistry in action.

Tell us about someone Mission Smiles has served whose story stands out to you.

One of our volunteers introduced us to Selah, a human trafficking organization, a few years ago because of a personal passion. When we realized that these women needed comprehensive care but couldn’t do it financially, we decided to adopt them — so it’s a group where we take care of their needs start to finish. This one woman in the program, we were able to get her dentures. And just giving someone their smile back can be life-changing. She is now employed as Selah’s representative in jails, where she encourages human trafficking victims to join their recovery program.

What other patients have stood out to you over the years?

This one woman called telling us that her brother needed to get chemotherapy. But before he could get chemo, he had to have all of his teeth out, and he didn’t have the funding for that. She asked if there was anything we could do. Well, we of course got him in at our very next clinic, and we took care of everything so he could get his surgical clearance. Things like that are big for us. There's so much demand — we could never do enough clinics in a year to meet it.

Do you see volunteerism as essential to getting care to those in need? 

[Politically-driven health] issues have a tendency to divide us, so I usually try to look at the good being done now to show America’s awareness of oral health needs. [Some state and federal programs have] expanded restorative care for adults, FQHCs offer sliding scale fees based upon poverty level, and in Florida dentists can volunteer without legal implications thanks to [a statute known as] sovereign immunity. [Because] these opportunities are made available, [many] Americans can seek needed care.

You volunteer on weekends after a full week of hard work as a dentist. How do you keep going?

There's a joy in giving. And there's definitely a joy in serving. Even when you're tired, there's just as much return in the giving as there is in overcoming the fatigue. I have a busy schedule. My prayer is that God helps me have balance. Every time you volunteer, it reinforces why you do it. A person who has never done it can’t understand that until they try it. I see the value when I get a hug at the end of a procedure and I get the “thank you” and the “you don't know what you've meant” and the “I’ve looked and looked and I’m so glad that I’ve found you.” That's the reward in itself.

Read more stories about Preventists changing their communities and learn more about the future of oral health at Preventistry.org.