Response: May 2015 Issue

A Growing Neighborhood

Neighborhood Services Organization provides much needed dental care to the underserved in Oklahoma City.

A Growing Neighborhood
Heather Wheeler, dental hygienist, performs preventative care services at the NSO dental clinic. She also teaches dental hygiene.

This past Thanksgiving, 40 young adults gathered at Epworth United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for the annual dinner hosted by Neighborhood Services Organization, or NSO, a United Methodist Women-supported national mission institution serving the at-risk and homeless of the Oklahoma City community. NSO offers transitional housing, permanent housing for the homeless and mentally ill, rental assistance and health care as well as follow-up support for independent living.

Stacey Ninness, executive director, went from table to table, welcoming diners, who were eating ham, turkey and all trimmings prepared and served with the help of United Methodist Women members.

But Mark (not his real name) just had mashed potatoes on his plate.

Ms. Ninness sat down with him. After visiting a few minutes, she asked, "Is that all you're going to eat?"

"My teeth are killing me," Mark said. "I can't eat anything that's not really soft."

Laura Gutierrez, manager of NSO's dental clinic, was visiting a nearby table. Ms. Ninness called her over to Mark's table, introduced her to Mark, and she sat down with them. Together, Ms. Ninness and Ms. Gutierrez explained to Mark that since he lived in one of NSO's residential facilities, the organization's dental clinic, with help from its partners, could do whatever it took to solve his dental problems at no cost to him.

Mark was thrilled. A few days later he came to the clinic eager to get relief from his pain.

"We extracted all of his teeth and made him some dentures," says Ms. Gutierrez.

She says it's easy to understand why Mark's teeth developed serious problems. Like most other residents of the organization's Carolyn Williams Center, he had been homeless since he turned 18 and aged out of foster care.

"When you have been living on the street for several years, dental hygiene is not your top priority," Ms. Gutierrez said. "You are asking yourself, 'What am I going to eat? Where am I going to sleep tonight?' When these questions are on your mind, you are not worried about where to brush your teeth."

Ms. Gutierrez has served at the NSO dental clinic for 12 years, and she says she has her dream job.

"During my teens, I believed God had a special place for me to serve," she recalls. "But being in the dental field never crossed my mind."

After high school, she studied to become a medical assistant but soon discovered that wasn't the career she wanted to pursue.

While searching for where God wanted her, she volunteered at NSO. She knew Methodist women started the organization shortly after World War I to help men and women and children whose lives had been turned upside down by the war. Many immigrant families lived in the neighborhood at the time.

Dental clinic

Even back when Oklahomans were still reeling from the Depression and the Dust Bowl disasters, NSO, then called Wesley Community House, was already known as the place for people to go if they needed help or had a passion and vision for helping marginalized people.

That's why Dr. A. B. Holt came to the organization in 1971. A dentist, during his 28 years caring for Oklahoma City patients he had seen low-income people endure excruciating pain because they couldn't afford dental care. And he decided it was way past time to do something about it.

Dr. Holt shared his concerns with NSO, which had limited resources but limitless compassion. Together, NSO and Dr. Holt established a dental clinic to provide low-cost services to people who were unable to access care. They could go not just for emergency extraction of bad teeth but to have their teeth cleaned and cavities filled and to get structural repairs.

Above all, they envisioned a clinic where every patient was given top-quality care and was treated with respect and genuine concern.

Dr. Holt and others found used equipment that was still serviceable. They recruited several volunteer dentists, found space, and soon the dental clinic opened in July 1971. The minimal fees helped cover the clinic's supplies and operating expenses.

For several years, the NSO clinic was staffed by volunteer dentists who served a few hours every month, but it soon became obvious that enough volunteers could not be recruited to meet the needs, and a dentist was hired.

In 2002, when Ms. Gutierrez became a volunteer at NSO, she says she helped out wherever she was needed most.

"Most of the day, I answered phone calls from people desperate to find dental care. I was amazed at how many people needed help but couldn't afford to pay what it costs at typical dental offices. Since our clinic was opened only one day a week and had only one operatory [a space equipped for dental procedures], we had a long waiting list. Some people waited several weeks."

A few months after Ms. Gutierrez came to NSO, the dental clinic added two more operatories and hired a second dentist. Ms. Gutierrez was offered a job with a paycheck, and she accepted it immediately.

Right away, she saw the many ways that good dental care changes lives.

Ms. Gutierrez remembers one morning when a young woman came in with badly decaying teeth.

"She told me she was a working as a waitress but had the training to work in an office, and that was what she wanted to do. She said she didn't because she was embarrassed about how her teeth looked and couldn't make herself go for an interview."

Ms. Gutierrez helped her put together a treatment plan and set up several appointments for her.

"A few weeks after she finished her last appointment, the young woman walked into our clinic out of the blue. With a beautiful smile, she said, 'I don't need anything. Today, I got my dream job, and I just want to say thanks for what you guys did for me!'"

Ms. Gutierrez says seeing the transformation that had come in this young woman's life was all it took to remove all her doubts about a career. Pleased by Ms. Gutierrez's decision, NSO gave her time to go to school to become a certified dental hygienist while continuing to work at the dental clinic.

Ms. Gutierrez says what she learned in school and while working with NSO dentists is that good dental care not only helps you have a beautiful smile, it gives you a good reason to smile because it protects your overall health and quality of life.

"Your mouth is a portal of entry for infection," she said. "Long-term inflammation in your mouth allows bacteria to enter your blood stream and cause inflammation elsewhere. Problems in your mouth can affect the rest of your body."

Ms. Gutierrez is painfully aware that countless people do not have access to quality dental care.

She points to surveys by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicating that Oklahoma ranks among the worst in the nation on key measures for access of oral and dental health.

Accessing dental care

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 21.9 percent of Oklahomans do not have health insurance, and a much larger share, about 50 percent, don't have dental insurance according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

Ms. Gutierrez says there are several free clinics, but most of them are open only a few hours a week, have long waiting lists and only do extractions.

Free clinics are wonderful, she says. More are needed to help meet the need. But free clinics, she says, cannot begin to provide all the dental care people of all ages need.

"Everybody needs a dental home, and that's what we want to be," she explains.

"We offer comprehensive dental care services, staffed by highly qualified professionals who are committed to our ministry. We see about 18 to 24 patients every day. Last year we performed 6,216 procedures."

She says many patients come to NSO from rural towns and communities more than a hundred miles away where free or low-cost dental services are not available.

In a 2013 Oklahoma Watch report on the scarcity of dental care, Jana Winfree, chief of dental health services at the Oklahoma State Department of Health, said Oklahoma has 2,000 dentists, but most of them are in urban areas. At least 50 of the state's 77 counties have been designated as dental health shortage areas, and four counties don't have dentists.

In addition to serving people who come to them, NSO's dental clinic reaches out to people across Oklahoma City. Ms. Gutierrez says grants from various partners enable the clinic to serve people with special needs who live in their three residential homes.

"Our dental hygienist goes to elementary schools across Oklahoma City and teaches dental hygiene, does free dental screenings and gives vouchers for uninsured students who have extreme needs to attend our dental clinic and receive an exam, X-rays and one procedure at no cost."

Expanding services

In 2011, mindful of the extreme needs, Ms. Ninness and the NSO board took action to improve the scope and quality of the dental clinic and other NSO ministries.

"We knew that unless we got more room, our ministries could not grow to meet the needs for dental care and other services we provide," said Ms. Ninness. "And we knew our building was nearly 100 years old and had major problems."

Ms. Ninness said NSO had planned to remain in their building while they raised funds for a new building, but that turned out to be impossible.

"As a national mission institution of United Methodist Women, we work closely with the national office. When we outlined our needs and plans to meet them, the national administrators advised us to have a structural engineer inspect the building before we did anything else.

"So, we had a structural engineer do an inspection, and what he said shocked us: 'To protect your staff and people who come for your services, you must vacate within two weeks.' And that's what we did. It wasn't easy to find a building, to move our equipment, and do all that we had to do. But with God's help, we did it."

For the past three years, NSO has operated its dental clinic and administrative and other services in the cramped quarters of a leased building about five miles away.

During that time, they have completed a $2.5 million capital campaign to pay for the building and are now wrapping up a $500,000 campaign for equipment and furnishings.

"United Methodist clergy and laypeople have been at the very heart of what's happened," Ms. Ninness said.

"United Methodist Women at all levels—from local churches to the national office—have supported us faithfully. And so have numerous local United Methodist churches."

NSO's old building has been demolished, and construction of the new building is scheduled for completion by August.

"We are building on the same ground where Methodist women gave birth 97 years ago to what is now Neighborhood Services Organization," Ms. Ninness said. "And we are motivated by the same Christian passion and principles. We can't wait to get back home!"


The Rev. Dr. Boyce Bowdon is a retired pastor and former director of communications for the Oklahoma Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Posted or updated: 5/4/2015 11:00:00 PM
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