June 25 2014 12:00 AM

Volunteer dental program to become permanent fixture

Care Free Medical and Dental’s Pay It Forward program, which trades volunteer hours for dental services, will be a permanent fixture within the next two months.

For a minimum of four hours of volunteer work, patients can get teeth cleanings, X-rays and a treatment plan from a dentist in the area — free of charge. If a patient needs more treatment, they can sign up for more volunteer hours.

Patients are able to choose from a wide variety of nonprofit organizations on a list provided for them, but they can volunteer anywhere as long as it’s considered a nonprofit.

Michelle Lantz, project volunteer, said that many patients have often never volunteered before and are finding new value in helping others.

“They are oftentimes networking, finding possibilities to continue volunteering and maybe even finding a job, while also earning free dental treatment,” Lantz said.

The idea for Pay It Forward began in 2012 to improve oral healthcare in mid-Michigan and decrease visits to the emergency room for dental issues that cannot be treated there. It was inspired by a similar program implemented in Calhoun County five years ago. In that program’s first three years, the county saw an 80 percent decrease in emergency room visits for dental problems.

After receiving $90,000 in funding from various supporting organizations in the area, Care Free launched their pilot program in fall 2013 with seven dentists and 25 patients. They now have 700 patients on their waiting list.

“It is simple to understand and easy to see the benefit,” Lantz said. “So it was easy for people to want to fund the project.”

In addition to volunteer hours, patients are required to attend an oral health class to learn how to take care of their teeth and maintain their health once treatment is over. They also must agree to have two teeth cleanings a year with the dentist they are assigned to.

They are given two weeks to complete their volunteer hours before their appointment.

“(The volunteer hours) are intangible and we wouldn’t have the service without this program,” Lantz said.