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‘Create a smile, change a life’: Vernon non-profit dental clinic making a difference

For more than a decade, the Community Dental Access Centre has created smiles for people, no matter their income
The Community Dental Access Centre in Vernon celebrated its 10th year of serving the North Okanagan in September 2022. (Morning Star file photo)

For more than a decade, Community Dental Access Centre has been giving people in the North Okanagan a brighter smile, no matter their income.

The not-for-profit dental clinic in Vernon has grown considerably since founder Laine Lowe first opened doors in September 2012. The idea for the clinic had been bored into the Interior Health dental hygienist’s head by calls from people asking her how they could pull their own teeth out because they were in pain and couldn’t afford a dentist.

Lowe got together with a Vernon outreach nurse and a few other individuals to come up with a plan to address the massive need for dental care for people without dental insurance in the area. They eventually got a few dentists willing to work pro bono on board, and started working out of a number of offices.

As clinic manager Karen Waldal explains, it quickly became evident that the team needed something permanent, and after a round of fundraising, the Community Dental Access Centre officially opened doors on 31st Avenue.

“At the time the clinic opened it was still primarily staffed by volunteers, it was only open on an occasional basis,” Waldal said. “Fast forward now just over 10 years later, we operate a five operatory clinic, we operate five days a week, all of our staff primarily is paid staff … and we operate with a number of reception volunteers.”

The clinic sees about 1,000 patients a year, and the need in the North Okanagan is growing every year. Waldal says the COVID-19 pandemic put a strain on the budgets of more low-income people, who now had to decide whether to get the pain in their mouth addressed or put food on the table, purchase essential medication or pay rent.

“I think the majority of people we can relate to what it’s like to have dental pain, but I don’t know that the majority of us know what it’s like to have that kind of incredible pain and have absolutely no means at all to deal with it,” Waldal said.

As the clinic is a registered charity, people need to qualify for their services. But once they qualify, and provided they have an adjusted net family income of $35,000 per year or less, they can receive a 35, 45 or 55 per cent discount on the standard dental fees set by the B.C. Dental Association.

And for those who still can’t afford a reduced fee, the clinic has what it calls an ‘angel fund,’ contributed to by donors for the specific purpose of providing free dental care to those most in need.

For Waldal, the angel fund has been a source of some of the most rewarding moments on the job.

She tells the story of a lady who came in at the start of the school year last year who was “obviously quite troubled” standing at the counter with her credit card in hand. She hadn’t expected to have to pay that day but had just learned she owed a nominal fee.

Waldal told her receptionist to use the angel fund to pay for the woman’s dental care that day.

“She burst into tears and she said, ‘I don’t have to go home and tell my daughter I can’t buy her any school supplies,’” Waldal recounted. “Those are the things that we’re able to see all the time. No one should have to make those kinds of choices.”

The woman was not a one-off case; the clinic has an unofficial policy to never turn someone away who is in pain and cannot afford to pay. As such, the clinic serves many homeless individuals in the North Okanagan and works closely with community agencies in Vernon including Turning Points Collaborative Society, the Salvation Army and Archway Society for Domestic Peace to serve more folks who have nowhere else to turn, other than to repeatedly visit the emergency room for painkillers and treatment of oral infections.

READ MORE: Vernon community dental clinic gets government support

The clinic has a motto on its website: ‘Create a smile, change a life.’

That motto is borne out every time someone comes into the clinic who’s too self-conscious about their teeth to smile.

“We had one person that came in who said, ‘I can’t even go to a job interview because I’m so embarrassed by my teeth,’” Waldal recalled. “It really can make a huge difference for folks when they’re comfortable and they actually are comfortable smiling.”

The clinic is made possible by generous donors and volunteers — and they’re always looking for more volunteers in the clinic, for special events, or on their board of directors. It’s also made possible by dentists who sacrifice the higher wages and benefits available to them in private practice in exchange for the chance to make a “profound difference,” as Waldal says.

More than 10 years after Lowe (who is still an active volunteer with the clinic) decided to work towards dental care for all in the North Okanagan, the demand has never been greater.

“If we had a magic wand, what we would want for our clinic, obviously it would be to be able to continue to have enough staff that we can continue to meet the needs of our community because they’re growing every year,” Waldal said.

Short of a magic wand, the team makes do with an “incredibly professional, compassionate, well-trained staff” who work to democratize healthy smiles, and change lives along the way.

READ MORE: Thousands of Canadians missed out on federal housing and dental benefits: report

Brendan Shykora
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Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started at the Morning Star as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
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