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Two-day dental clinic to provide free cleanings, X-rays

Tegan Hanlon

A portable dental clinic will pop up in Anchorage next week, opening its 100 chairs to some 2,000 patients for free cleanings, fillings and X-rays.

Dentists from across Alaska, and even a few from the Lower 48, will congregate downtown at the Dena'ina Center Friday and Saturday for the two 12-hour clinics that organizers are calling the Alaska Mission of Mercy.

Doors open at 4:30 a.m., treatment starts at 6 a.m. and dentists will see patients in the order they line up.

"It's first come, first serve. No appointments necessary," said Julie Robinson, a long-time local dentist and clinic co-chair. "We don't ask anything about why you're there, where you're from or your income."

Robinson said she expects to hit full capacity, 1,000 patients, both days. She hopes the turnout will highlight just how many residents cannot afford dental care in a city where, she said, many people with little disposable income and without dental insurance have few options.

"There's not much access," Robinson said. "In a nutshell, if you're Alaska Native you can go to the Southcentral Foundation; if you're a veteran you can possibly got the VA dental clinic; if you're a parolee, you can maybe go to see Dr. Boothe over at the prison. But if you aren't any of those, you have two places to go," she said, the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center or the teaching clinic at University of Alaska Anchorage.

Alaska Mission of Mercy won't fix the problem, just underscore it, she said.

Robinson and her husband, David Nielson, started planning for the large-scale clinic more than a year ago after selling their dentistry on N Street in 2012, she said.

A few years back, the Alaska Dental Society heard a pitch from Oregon dentists about the Mission of Mercy, a nationwide initiative to provide free dental care to people in need. It started in Virginia and spread to 25 states. But the society only had two part-time staffers, an executive director and not enough resources to fuel the event, Nielson said.

Then\ Robinson started planning. The same year the practice was sold, she and her husband told the Alaska Dental Society that they would take on the project, Nielson said. He serves as the clinic's other co-chair and the dental society's executive director.

"Once Julie takes something on, she goes all out," he said. "Julie has spent, I can't even calculate, it has to be thousands of hours. For a year and a half she's been in front of her computer most of the day, not just weekdays, but weekends."

The couple and a group of volunteers flew to Portland in November to see the city's Mission of Mercy, watching as people camped outside 24 hours in advance. Robinson said lines could form the night before in Anchorage and advised prospective patients to bring snacks.

In a phone interview Thursday, Nielson said she sat in her home surrounded by print outs, prepping for the following week and fielding back-to-back phone calls from volunteers about appropriate clothing, lighting and supply checks.

She said back in December 2012, the couple knew nearly nothing about organizing a clinic -- they had no volunteers, no money and no direction. She dialed local dentists repeatedly, explaining the Mission of Mercy and asking for their help, often having to call back two or three times to enforce her plea.

"Some of them jumped right on board," she said. "A lot of them, it just took a lot of education."

By Friday, the couple had recruited 239 dentists and 1,524 volunteers, according to the running tally on the clinic's website.

The volunteers are coming from places including Fairbanks, Bethel, Dillingham, Soldotna and Kenai. Outside Alaska, they will travel from states like Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee and North Carolina. Many are former co-workers or classmates who know local dentists, Nielson said.

Businesses, hospitals and the municipality have swept in to donate money, time and supplies, culminating in a pot of about $200,000 to run the two-day clinic and purchase dental equipment.

Between the clinic days, Robinson expects about $1 million in services to be given away. The clinic will offer cleanings, fillings, root canals on anterior teeth, extractions, X-rays and oral health education with a limited supply of flippers and temporary retainers.

"The idea is to try to give people, as much as possible, their smile back," Nielson said.

For more information visit akmom.org.

Reach Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@adn.com or 257-4589.


By TEGAN HANLON
thanlon@adn.com