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A bright light beamed into Maria Garcia's wide-open mouth as Dr. Amber Walker injected an epoxy-type resin into her damaged tooth. The Shakopee woman had been in pain for weeks, with no dental insurance and not enough money to pay for her misery to go away. Within moments, however, she'd received a free new filling and a mouth that felt good again.

"It hurt so much," said Garcia, who was accompanied by her 15-year-old son Roberto. "I was pretty nervous, too."

But thanks to Hope Dental Clinic and a cadre of volunteer dentists, hygienists, assistants and students who have served the poor and uninsured since 1965, Garcia on a recent Thursday night finally found relief. After operating for decades out of the basement at Union Gospel Mission's men's campus, the Hope Clinic last month began seeing patients at its new facility in the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood on the East Side of St. Paul.

This year, Hope Dental Clinic's 400-500 volunteers — including 50-60 volunteer dentists — will help an estimated 2,500 uninsured people, pulling teeth, filling cavities, performing dental exams and cleanings. The nonprofit clinic does all this at no cost to patients, although it now asks for a $20 administrative fee from those who can afford it.

"In the past, we had no fee," said Executive Director Jessica Flotterud, who added that the mission used to make up the difference between money that the clinic raised and its overall costs. "But we are no longer part of a religious organization [Union Gospel Mission], so the small fee helps."

Hope Dental Clinic's annual budget is about $900,000, including the value of volunteers' time. Of that, the clinic needs about $650,000 a year in cash, large chunks of which come from the Otto Bremer foundation, the United Way of the Twin Cities and of Washington County, the Patterson Dental Foundation and other organizations.

Hope Dental volunteers and staff also visit local day care centers and preschools to talk about oral health and provide preventive services. A couple times a year, Hope volunteer dentists will offer free dental care to children with no questions asked and no fee requested. The clinic will also run St. Paul Dental Connect, Flotterud said, a walk-in clinic for people who are homeless. During the clinic, which Flotterud said Hope plans to hold four times this year, volunteers also help patients sign up for Medical Assistance and dental assistance programs.

But its biggest impact may be the work done at Hope's bright new office "with windows!" Flotterud said. Moving to the fourth floor of an office building on Minnehaha Avenue East, near the old Hamm's brewery, cost about $600,000. It's already making it easier to see patients, she said.

The daytime clinic runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is by appointment. Patients receive examinations, X-rays, fluoride treatments and can get their teeth cleaned by volunteer hygienists. The evening clinic goes from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and is primarily for extractions. All patients arrive by 6.

It was just after 6 p.m. on a recent Thursday night and the waiting room was already full of patients, most of whom needed a painful tooth — or teeth — removed. Dr. Patrick McGann was ready. The former Department of Veterans Affairs dentist who now has a practice in Lake Elmo said he's probably removed 12,000 teeth in his 16 years as a dentist. He's volunteered at the Hope Clinic for 18 years, since he was a dental student.

"You're helping people at a very basic level," he said, preparing patient Clayton Ristrom's gums with a couple of pain-numbing swabs. "So they can go out and function and live their lives."

This would be the third tooth Ristrom has had extracted at the clinic. Or was it the fourth? He wasn't sure. But it was saving him plenty.

"This [clinic] helps so much," said Ristrom, who works in student transportation and has no dental insurance. "I've had to borrow money before, paid $300 for a tooth. Without this, I would probably have had to make payments."

Missy Ness, a 33-year dental assistant from Coon Rapids, has volunteered at Hope for two years. "Because anybody could be a paycheck away from needing help," she said of why she's here helping one night every six weeks.

Dr. Todd Thierer, associate dean for clinical affairs at the University of Minnesota dental school, said the program has proved to be a "win-win all around" for the university students and faculty members who volunteer at Hope. He volunteers as well, about once a month for the past nearly seven years.

"We are able to provide service for these folks who have nowhere else to turn, and they are extremely appreciative," he said. "And for our students, it's an opportunity for them to get more experience."

Thierer recalled when he first interviewed for his job at the university, a dental student asked him whether he would commit to volunteering for the program, then at the Union Gospel Mission. On his first day at the new job, he said, she was there to remind him.

That student, now an oral surgeon, volunteers at Hope. So did her dentist father, for 30 or so years. "The people that you see there, we all have this misperception about who these folks are. But you see people from all walks of life — and you think, there but for the grace of God go I," he said. "This is really allowing them to take the next step in improving their lives."

James Walsh • 651-925-5041