Braving the sub-freezing temperatures, people began arriving at 4:30 a.m., sitting in parked cars trying to warm themselves as best they could, while waiting for the doors to open at 8 a.m. Much to their delight, the doors opened earlier than expected and the crowd was invited in to a warm lobby, with friendly staff, cheery Christmas music and two industrial-sized pots of hot coffee.
Even though it paralleled Christmas shoppers outside closed retail stores eager for the promise of deep, early-bird discounts, those waiting were eager for something infinitely more important: dental work at no cost in Oakhurst.
Dr. Dennis Jones began Free Dentistry Day 20 years ago, and Dr. Rodney Peter joined in 8 years later. Like a well-oiled machine, the team including other area dentists, Dr. Bob Brosi, Dr. Barbara Kelly, Endodontist Ryan Franklin, and Fresno Oral Surgeon Anna Marie Grady, as well as two Registered Dental Hygienists, five dental assistants and three front office staff wasted no time getting to work.
Lisa Musgrove, one of those early-birds, had planned on spending the night in the parking lot, but the bitter cold changed her mind. "What they're doing makes me want to cry," she said. "I've been living with pain from a tooth that has been bothering me for over six months. That they take a day out of their lives to help us it's awesome."
Cole Pelzl, 12, of Oakhurst was there with his father, Aaron, for a cleaning, x-rays and a fluoride treatment from Francine Russo, Registered Dental Hygienist. "Cole's been coming here since he was 6," said father, Aaron, "and he's cavity-free. We lost our insurance in January when I lost my job, so this is a great thing they're doing."
A 67-year-old Oakhurst woman, who wished to remain anonymous, walked out her door at 5:30 a.m. wrapped in layers-upon-layers of clothing to keep warm. Because she has no transportation, she walked more than a mile to Peter and Jones' practice. "It's just such a blessing. I've lost three teeth over the past five years because I don't have dental insurance. Dr. Kelly put a stainless steel cap on my tooth and was able to save it ... a true blessing."
Robert and Susan Day from North Fork got to Oakhurst at 6:30 Friday morning. They took turns waiting in line while the other warmed up in the car. Both are retired, he receives Social Security and she has Kaiser for medical, but they can't afford dental coverage.
"So many people don't have dental insurance because it costs an arm and a leg," Robert said. "This day is a life-saver for us. Susan has been suffering with her teeth for three years and we come over every year to get one tooth pulled at a time. We came over today because she's been complaining about her dentures but the dentist told her that one of her teeth was causing poison to run through her body, so this became the priority over her dentures."
Grateful Cheyenne Gongora, 18, of Merced heard about Free Dentistry Day from her grandmother, who lives in Mariposa. "It's just great that they do this kind of thing to help people like me who need some help," she said. She saw Jones for a filling.
Jedidiah Becker, 8, patiently watched as his younger brother, Michael, 4, having his teeth cleaned by RDH Melani Deckert. "This is a great service for our family," mother Alicia said. "We're both self-employed, have six children and no dental insurance. We're very, very thankful."
"I'm thankful, too," Deckert said, "thankful that I work with Dr. Peter and Dr. Jones who offer this ... it's just a good feeling day."
By the end of the day, 71 (64 adults and 7 children) had received dental care.
"All the dentists and staff feel very fortunate to be a part of the mountain community," Jones said, "and to have this opportunity to thank the community for their support.
"It was great seeing everyone pull together to serve and help so many people it was a fun and rewarding day," Peter added.
Others who participated and/or assisted included: front office: Cindy Jones (wife of Dennis Jones), Cindy Muehlenbeck, and Summer Kieffer; Registered Dental Hygienists Melani Deckert and Francine Russo; Dental Assistants Janet Kelly, Meghan Mills, Autumn Finnegan, Margot Wright and Dennis Roberts; and Courtney Villagomez, who is currently attending Fresno City to become an RDH. Scheidts Lab in Fresno also provided denture repairs at no cost.
Low-cost cleanings at $15 are available at Fresno City College for cleanings only no diagnostic or treatment is provided.