The three ladies sat in the front row together, 30 hours among them of waiting for free dental care.
They didn’t complain. Not once.
They were strangers until Friday, waiting together for their turns in one of more than 80 dental chairs in the First Baptist Church sanctuary for Dental Access Days, sponsored by the S.C. Dental Association.
First Baptist looked like a real-life MASH hospital. Scores of medical people, every one of them volunteer, bumping rear ends as they pulled teeth and fixed teeth and turned frowns into smiles. Hundreds more volunteers marshaled people toward desks like kindergarten teachers.
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The volunteers did it for what was likely the largest-ever single gathering of poor people in York County. The working poor, the unemployed, the underemployed. The single parents and the homeless. Those living in trailers – people the world normally looks away from at the grocery store or bank.
The poor, on fallen arches, jaws drooping, teeth missing. Forever right in front of us, almost invisible – until Friday.
It looked like a scene from Afghanistan or Africa, a network news report with medical miracles and waits for service, all in a huge room. It was in the largest church in Rock Hill, in the richest nation in the world.
“Look at this, the caring for others,” said Rhonda Davis, who without the free care has no dental care. “This is just incredible.”
“I am thankful to receive this service,” said Ashley Saville, flanking Davis to the left. “When I get a good job, I want to volunteer the next time. I want to help others, too.”
“And all of it for free for people just like us,” said Sheila McMoore, on Davis’s other side.
The three ladies, two white and one black, part of the invisible underclass that America so often looks right past on the way to the drive-thru for take-out food to be chewed with strong teeth kept healthy by dental insurance provided by a good job.
The hundreds of patients Friday, with more expected today, have no insurance. They have no good-paying jobs. They are the Rock Hill and York County and South Carolina not in political ads or brochures.
As the three ladies spoke about how thankful they were, a name was called. Behind them, a middle-aged woman rose. She smiled and showed a few stumps of teeth. She walked, so slow it seemed she would never move. All three ladies waiting looked down. The woman to be treated finally shuffled past.
She had no feet.
The woman had waited for 10 hours for treatment, sometimes standing – on two prosthetic feet.
“Oh my!” said a guy in the front row. “And I was just thinkin’ I had it bad today.”
That woman was taken to a chair and cared for by a smiling doctor and a smiling nurse. Volunteers doing exactly what every Christian church and every person of every religion is supposed to do: Caring for the poor who have no teeth – or feet.
Organizers concluded that Friday was, without question, the largest single heath care event, the largest single-day gathering of volunteers, and the largest gathering of poor, in the history of York County.
All for free, and all done for the broke and broken, the desperate.
More than 900 volunteers from 20 churches and a dozen civic groups helped.
Sure, there were a few complaints. Many were those who have waited in lines all their lives, lives that have dealt them deuces instead of aces, lives filled with so many bad decisions.
Lines for unemployment benefits. Lines for food stamps benefits. Lines for donated food. Lines for emergency rooms where the uninsured have gone forever for toothaches.
Outside in the line Friday stood a guy from Clover named Tony Perry. A concrete man, he lives in a shelter.
“We brought five guys,” Perry said.
His teeth, what remained of them, needed a ton of work.
“I am happy to get it,” Perry said. “Dental care.”
That was the word used so often around the building, this church doing the work of Jesus Christ. The event wasn’t handled by the government, but by volunteers from professional and faith communities. The free clinic has been around the state before, but this was a first for Rock Hill.
For this one performance, the poor were on stage and in the front row. The cheering came from the rest of us who every other day have the stage lights and front row of life all to ourselves after closing the doors to keep the poor out.