Florida Keys churches bring dental care and God’s love to their neighbors

By Keila Diaz
Florida Baptist Witness

Neither stormy days nor the COVID-19 pandemic deterred the Florida Baptist Mobile Dental Unit from making its southernmost stay as churches from Key Largo to Key West cooperated together to bring much needed dental care and the good news of Christ to the Keys’ needy.

The mobile dental unit offered the Keys churches a positive connection to their communities and opened doors to minister to spiritual needs during its visit in late September and early October.

Additionally, the unit made Baptists well known and loved by their neighbors, said Charles Rosenbalm, pastor of First Baptist Church, Key Largo.

Unique ministry

Due to the collaboration of the churches, the dental bus project in the Florida Keys is unique from other locations in the state, said Marc Johnston, community ministries catalyst for the Florida Baptist Convention.

In the past, 10 Florida Keys churches hosted the dental bus, but due to COVID-19 concerns two churches had to withdraw from participation this year. Yet the churches sent volunteers to the mobile unit’s location to help with patient intake and follow-up.

Florida Baptists’ state-of-the-art mobile dental unit is a renovated bus equipped with two treatment rooms, each equipped with X-ray equipment, fiber-optic hand pieces, supplies and instruments needed for basic dentistry. The unit travels to churches across the state enlisting volunteer dentists and dental hygienists to meet needs of the uninsured poor.

Jonathan Elwing, pastor of First Baptist Church, Islamorada, originally invited the dental bus to journey down to the Keys about 10 years ago.

He had been serving as pastor of a North Carolina church and had used the state convention’s mobile dental unit there for ministry, recalled Johnston. “When he came down here, he asked us if we had anything like that and we said, ‘we do.’ He told the other churches down here about it and they all wanted to participate.”

Since then the mobile dental unit has served the Florida Keys communities for four consecutive weeks each year.

Samantha Valdes, First, Key Largo, volunteer, said this year’s outreach of the dental unit has been quite different than in previous years due to restrictions forced by the coronavirus.

COVID-19 restrictions

“Last year, we had families arrive with patients and we could talk to them and get to know them while their family member was in the bus receiving treatment,” she said.

This year to prevent the spread of COVID-19, patients came alone to dental appointments, had their temperature and pressure taken inside the church’s facility, then were required to wait outside until they could be seen. Immediately prior to entering the bus, patients had to thoroughly wash their hands at a hand-washing station.

Valdes said she missed that time of interaction with patients and their families this year.

The extra layer of precaution caused by the virus increased the workload for volunteers, but several said the extra responsibilities were preferable to missing the dental unit’s presence and the opportunity to love their community.

Jessa Byrd, a member of First, Key Largo, who volunteers at First, Islamorada, said the dental unit also helps them identify other needs patients might have.

“We find out what’s behind their dental needs,” she said. “Sometimes its homelessness, loss of a job or addiction. We try to build relationships with them to be able to help them … and ultimately introduce them to Christ.”

One major need that the churches have become aware of as they treat patients is the need for affordable housing. “Sometimes people get stuck here and can’t go back to where they are from, so we help them relocate,” she added.

As of Oct. 8, the mobile dental unit had served 85 patients in the Keys, performed 100 fillings and 69 extractions. The value of the work completed stands at $65,257. One patient made a profession of faith and eight made other spiritual decisions. Johnston expects the numbers to increase when reports from all the churches are completed.

Valuable services

During the previous year, the Mobile Dental Unit was hosted by 37 churches and organizations statewide, treated 2,198 patients with dental needs, reported 106 professions of faith and provided services valued at a million dollars.

EDITOR’S NOTE — This article was originally published by Florida Baptist Witness. To read more articles like this on Florida Baptists, visit flbaptist.org/witness. This article also appears in TAB News, a digital regional Baptist publication. For more information or to subscribe to the TAB News app, visit tabonline.org/TAB-News-app.