Many folks cringe when faced with having to visit the dentist, but for some it's a luxury they can't afford. Many unemployed veterans can't get the dental work they need, but some dentists in our valley are working to change that with a program called Freedom Fridays.
Dr. Todd Newton was inspired to start the program because of the number of military members who deal with unemployment upon returning home.
"These guys and gals are trying to come up and get back in the workplace, but if their smile or mouth full of pain or inflammation is keeping them from doing that, I think I can help with that," Dr. Newton said.
So Newton and his partners at Warm Springs Dental decided to give up their Fridays for pro bono work for unemployed veterans. They invited others to get on board and so far, 17 specialists and vendors have signed on.
They do extensive work, from root canals and extractions to implants and dentures. Even braces manufacturer Invisalign is on board.
Because time and equipment is all donated, the veterans can get the best treatment plan available.
"I get to do the dentistry that should be done without a dollar sign attached to it," Newton said.
What the doctors found once the program got under way earlier this year was that veterans from older wars are suffering as well. Many of them have struggled with homelessness and mental health issues. Dentistry and the costs that come with it had to take a back seat.
Casiano Mobley is one of the veterans who has fallen on hard times. He served the country decades ago and has struggled ever since with homelessness and mental health issues. Mobley also has issues with his teeth, which he can't afford to fix on his own.
"It went in a cycle. I'd get the antibiotics and pain pills and (the pain) would go away for awhile, and I couldn't really afford to get dental," Mobley said.
Warren Brown is a Vietnam-era vet who served in the Navy. He's had his share of problems, too, and lost many of his teeth a few years ago in an accident. That hurts him in the hunt for a full-time job.
"When you lose teeth or anything like that, it messes with your confidence for talking to people or interviews," Brown said.
But now, Mobley, Brown and many other veterans in need of extensive dental work are getting it for free, thanks to the program.
"The majority of your veterans who maybe only served maybe four years, they don't have that benefit once they get out of the military," Karen Lewis with the Las Vegas Urban League said.
Many may not understand the full effects of dentistry, but those who work closely with the veterans see it firsthand.
The Urban League and America Helping Heroes are the liaisons connecting the patients with the program. The nonprofits have the means to verify veterans' status.
They also see the effects firsthand.
"Case managers have informed us that an employer has told them, but not necessarily the veteran, that they would hire that individual immediately, but they need to have dental work - it's a customer service position," Lewis said.
"For many of these veterans it's life-altering, it enhances their self-esteem, it enhances their employability, and it's a great gift," America Helping Heroes' Angela Alegna said.
The self-esteem changes for some as soon as they know they are getting help.
Veteran Joe Roberts used to be a musician.
"My teeth started going downhill, and I woke up one day and realized I couldn't play in front of a live audience with my teeth the way they are. It totally destroyed my self-confidence."
Roberts lost his wife of 22 years to cancer last year. Now, he hopes with his new teeth he can start to smile again and get back to his music.
Dentistry can be a long process, and many of the veterans are just now going through it. But they are already looking ahead.
"I'll probably get back into a steady relationship, and go back to school and get a job, probably get a career," Brown said.
Despite all of their hardships, many of them say they would serve all over again, and they're grateful some members of our community are giving back.
If you or someone you know is an unemployed vet living in southern Nevada and in need of dental assistance, you can't contact Warm Springs Dental directly. Contact America Helping Heroes on the web or by phone at 888-270-4055. You can also contact the Las Vegas Urban League for support.
For more information on Freedom Fridays and the specialists donating their service, click here.
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