Filling an Ever Widening Gap on Our Own Doorstep
This article originally appears in the September 2020 issue of FOCUS Magazine.
Having lived in the UK for most of my life, I moved to Toronto in 2007 along with my husband and 2 children. After re-certifying as a dentist in Ontario, I became involved with a volunteer clinic serving the dental needs of uninsured low income adults in Scarborough, ON. After seeing the impact of this work in the east side of the city, I became aware of the huge unmet needs in other parts of the GTA . This inspired me to launch a new non-profit organization, Filling the Gap Dental Outreach, whose mission is to provide dental care to Toronto’s working poor in different locations across the city.
From as early on as my childhood, I sensed that God was calling me to help the underprivileged in some capacity. Throughout my life, I made efforts to get involved in different charitable endeavours, but somehow, due to the business of life and changing circumstances, I felt unable to dedicate sufficient time to really make a difference. By the time we arrived in Canada, I had a sense that life was passing me by and my desire to serve God and give back in a meaningful way was not being fulfilled.
Looking back, I can now see how God was preparing and equipping me in multiple different ways for the work I am now involved in, and His timing, as always, has been perfect. He waited until just the right season of my life to present an opportunity for me to use my skills as a dentist to show His love in a practical way to meet the needs of those within my community.
In 2012, after joining a team of volunteer dentists at a clinic in Scarborough, I was surprised to learn that many working Canadians are unable to afford basic dental care. In the UK, the public can choose to go to a private dentist, where prices are on a par with our dental fee guide here in Canada. For those who can’t afford private dentistry, the government provides the option of subsidized dental care through the NHS (National Health Service). Low income Canadians have no ‘low cost option’ for dental care. This system has led to a gap in the provision of dental care for the working poor. The Wellesley Institute reports that ‘1 in 3 Canadians have no dental insurance’ and that ’20% of Ontarians can’t afford to visit a dentist’. These individuals often have to sacrifice necessities such as groceries or paying the rent in order to take care of a painful tooth. Hospital Emergency rooms and family doctors are inundated with patients seeking help with dental problems since they have nowhere else to turn. Antibiotics and pain killers are just a temporary fix until the symptoms recur. An analysis of hospital emergency room visits for dental pain in Ontario in 2013 found 58,882 visits at a cost to the Government of around $30 million, while an analysis of visits to Ontario physicians’ offices for oral health problems in 2012 totalled 217,728 visits at a cost of $7.3 million. No doubt these figures have increased significantly since this analysis was carried out.
Whilst I could see that the volunteer clinic in Scarborough was making an impact, I was struck by two issues that still needed to be addressed. One of the specific problems facing the working poor is that visiting the dentist and the associated travel time amounts to loss of working hours and thus loss of wages. Outside of the Scarborough area, there were few options for low cost dental care in the city. In addition, as a Christian, I was conscious that the patients who come through the doors of the volunteer clinic have spiritual as well as dental needs.
For these two reasons, my husband and I started thinking about how to expand this valuable work into different parts of the city and create an opportunity to tell our patients about the love of Christ. We connected with a church in the west end of the city where the need for low cost dental treatment is great. The church leaders expressed interest in being part of a project to connect with their community by providing for their dental needs.
My initial thought was to build a new dental clinic from scratch, but after looking in to the practicality and cost of this option, we felt the door close and went back to the drawing board. Throughout the process, I prayed that God would provide His solution to the problem and that I would hold every plan with open hands until he made the direction clear. Proverbs 3:5 was an encouragement during this period of time: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
It was during a chance lunch meeting with a friend and colleague that the idea of using community dental clinics’ ‘off hours’ came up. This arrangement solved many of the problems I had encountered, including cost, potential for multiple locations, and collaboration with other community organizations. God then provided just the right connections to make this idea a reality and our first Filling the Gap Dental clinic is in the exact location that God initially led me to.
Filling the Gap Dental Outreach has 2 specific goals:
To provide free dental care by volunteer dentists and hygienists to low income uninsured adults in Toronto.
To help churches connect with and serve their local communities.
The first goal is to use existing community dental clinics in different locations across the city to provide free dental treatment to low income adults. By operating outside of business hours, our patients do not have to choose between missing work/earnings and seeking the care they need. We have established our first location at the Rexdale Community Health Centre and this clinic is ready to open in September and our goal is to source 3 other clinic locations across the GTA, creating local access to care for our patients.
Our second goal is to help churches connect with their local communities. As we build our network of dental clinics across the city, we are also seeking to connect with churches in these locations that would like to reach out to their local community. Our plan is for churches to invite local residents to outreach events hosted by the church. Our Filling the Gap team will offer free dental screenings for attendees and also carry out the necessary financial screening to determine eligibility for our Filling the Gap dental program. Those who are eligible will be referred to a local Filling the Gap dental clinic for treatment. At these events, church members will have the chance to connect with those who attend, invite them to church services and events and offer prayer and support. It is often the case that dental care is not the only problem facing those in low income areas within our city. Many face issues such as drug addiction, financial debt, health concerns and spiritual needs. In days gone by, the church was the main source of practical help and hope within the community but in our current culture the government has taken on this role. Many churches struggle to reach out to their unchurched community and I have found that church leaders welcome the opportunity to connect by offering a valuable practical service. It also provides an excellent opportunity for Christian dental professionals to use their practical skills to show God’s love and share the message of Christ.
We now have a board of directors for Filling the Gap Dental Outreach consisting of four dentists, an accountant and an experienced businessman. All of us have the same desire to address both the practical and spiritual needs of those we serve.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has placed a spotlight on economic inequalities that leave vulnerable communities to bear the economic brunt of the crisis. Thousands of low-income Canadians are facing devastating job and wage losses exacerbating the problem that already existed regarding access to dental care.
My hope and prayer is that our work will provide a ray of hope and encouragement for those who most need to experience a taste of God’s love during this tumultuous time.
How to Help Filling the Gap
- We are looking for more volunteer dentists and hygienists to join our team to ensure that we share the load as a team. Our initial opening hours at our Rexdale clinic will be Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturdays.
- Our costs include hiring a dental assistant and receptionist for the clinic and providing the necessary dental materials and supplies for our work. We are seeking donations for these necessary operational funds.
- Our vision for the future involves finding a sponsor to fund a paid dentist to work at our clinics to expand the number of patients and continuity of care that we can provide.
Please contact Dr. Amanda Morel at email@example.com or visit www.fillingthegap.ca if you are interested in volunteering or would like to find out more about the Filling the Gap Clinic.