Nature Coast Ministries Dental Clinic
Terri Almquist needed work on her teeth. The Crystal River resident had such pain on both sides of her mouth that it hurt to chew. But she didn’t have dental insurance and couldn’t afford to pay on her own.
She’d heard of the Nature Coast Ministries Dental Clinic, but when she called, the message said they weren’t accepting new patients. In desperation, she went to the Ministries Thrift Shop and talked to one of the sales clerks.
“He was so helpful,” she said. He told me to call back and leave a message. I did and within two hours, they called me back.”
A week later, she had an exam and X-rays. A few weeks after that, she received the dental care she needed – all free of charge.
“It was life changing for me,” she said. “It had gotten to where I didn’t have any options. I felt so blessed and so well cared for. There aren’t words to express how grateful I am.”
She found words to nominate the Nature Coast Ministries Dental Clinic for the Healthcare Heroes Dental Excellence award.
“These compassionate, selfless, heroes donate their time to provide free dental care to those in need in our community,” she wrote. “Their goal is to alleviate the pain the people in our community are experiencing because of infection or broken teeth or help them feel more confident in their appearance to improve employability.”
Nature Coast Ministries is a faith-based non-profit organization that was founded in 2008, the brainchild of Rev. David Throckmorton, then pastor of First Baptist Church of Crystal River.
“People were struggling to make ends meet because of the recession,” said Bonnie McMullin, co-executive director. “Rev. Throckmorton, his wife Sally, and others wanted to help feed and clothe people in need. They were serving 300 families a week when they got the idea of opening a dental clinic.”
The dental clinic opened in 2014, and immediately began serving patients, including veterans, the homeless, and other adults. Local dentists and other dental professionals volunteer their time. Since its opening, the clinic has treated more than 500 patients with more than 2,000 patient visits, and provided more than a half million dollars of dental care.
Like Terri Almquist, many people contact the clinic directly to make an appointment. It also gets referrals from the Health Department, the Path and other homeless organizations, and has recently started working with local emergency departments.
“It’s all by appointment. We can only do dental work when we have dentists volunteering their time. That’s usually two or three days a week at various times,” said McMullin. “Some nights we’re seeing patients until midnight.”
The well-equipped clinic is located in Crystal River, in an office provided by Dr. Linda Witherow, one of the clinic’s dentist volunteers. It includes two exam rooms, one surgical room, a panoramic X-ray room, waiting area, and offices.
“We were in desperate need of a building,” said McMullin. “Gary Meiman, the executive director at the time said a prayer. ‘Lord, you’ve got to find us a building.’ Fifteen minutes later he got a call from Dr. Witherow, who had a unit in a building that had been used for a dance studio. We came in, remodeled and got our equipment in.”
While McMullin goes around the community, talking to local clubs and organizations about the clinic, co-executive director Sue Grable works to recruit dental professionals. The former Crystal River High School Health Academy instructor has a goal of getting more dentists, hygienists, and assistants to volunteer, so the clinic can treat more people in need.
“We are going to make this more productive,” she said.
Nature Coast Ministries is funded through individual and club donations, grants, and from proceeds from their Thrift Shop, located on U.S. Hwy 19, in Sunny Days Plaza in Homosassa. Open six days a week, the shop is run by volunteers Edie and Kevin Rosio. The couple volunteers about 60 hours a week.
“I love it,” said Edie. “I love to help the veterans, and all the people who need it. I knew as soon as I walked into the place that I needed to volunteer here.
Edie and Kevin pick up or accept donations at the shop, clean them, price them and put them up for sale. If need be, they’ll even sand and paint furniture. Through the shop, they also provide clothing and hygiene supplies to homeless people.
Providing needed dental care does more than restore a patient’s smile. It also helps patients with their overall health – and improves employment opportunities.
“I met a woman at church, and I could see that she needed dental care, so I told her to give us a call,” said Grable. “A couple of weeks later, I pulled up at the clinic and she was walking out with a big smile. She said, ‘I’m going for a job interview today. You made me feel like I’m ready to do that.’”
“They go out of here with a smile on their face, and a tear in their eye,” said McMullin.