Dr. William Kelson, of Silver Spring, Md., believes he can make a difference one smile at a time. So, last weekend he drove about 60 extra miles to participate in the Southern Maryland Mission of Mercy’s two-day free dental clinic in a small rural town south of St. Mary’s County. He joined more than 650 volunteers, including other dentists and dental hygienists from the Washington area to provide dental cleanings, fillings, extractions, and cosmetic work to rural residents who lack health and dental insurance.

“She’ll walk out of here looking different,” Kelson said, as his patient, Eveline Taylor, leaned forward so Kelson’s assistant could tie on a paper apron. He would clean and whiten her yellowed teeth, damaged, she said, by cancer treatment. Her new smile will go a long way to restoring her self-confidence.

Taylor, a middle-aged Caucasian woman, said she had been a successful entrepreneur and motivational speaker before the death of her parents and a diagnosis of cancer left her devastated. She lost everything, including her home, she said. Clutching a “Cancer Survivors” newsletter that includes a picture of her, she explained that she has been struggling to recover since her diagnosis in 1999. She was grateful for the free dental clinic.

“I had no money, no income, no insurance,” said Taylor, who eagerly anticipated the day the services would be offered. “It’s lifted me up and given me confidence that I can smile without people pre-judging me, thinking I come from a slum background.”

Close to 1,000 Southern Maryland residents registered for the free services offered June 22-23, at Chopticon High School, in Morganza, Md., south of St. Mary’s County, according to Mission officials. The Mission, a free dental service for adults launched by the Virginia Health Department in 2000, began offering free dental clinics in Virginia, and expanded to Maryland, offering two free clinics in Cumberland, Md., so far, according to Dr. Garner Morgan, Mission Project Director. They are planning to offer the clinics twice a year at four sites in Maryland: Southern Maryland, the Eastern Shore, Western, Md., and near Baltimore.

A website, http://www.freedentalcare.us, lists free and income-based discounted dental services offered in states throughout the country.

The sight at Chopticon High School was electric as dentists set up shop in the school gymnasium. The odor of toothpaste and dental rinse permeated the air. The buzz and whizz of teeth polishers and fillings drills were distinct. Patients were received at check-in stations in front of the school, and preceded through registration stations in the lobby. They were grouped by services needed, and directed to designated waiting areas. Supply stations were manned at the back of the gymnasium. Teams of volunteers, easily identified by blue Mission tee shirts, worked efficiently in shifts.

Dr. Kelson, who arrived at the event with a team from his office, including an oral surgeon, two dentists, three technicians, three dental assistants, and an office administrator, is used to driving the extra miles for business – and for service. He has been delivering services to nursing homes, seniors assisted living facilities, and the residences of homebound individuals throughout the Washington area since 1995. He realized there was a population under-served because they lacked mobility. Next month he will open an office specifically fitted to serve patients in wheelchairs.

The Mission of Mercy contacted Kelson because of his reputation for community service, he said. In addition to dedicating part of his business as a “regional mobile branch” that serves patients in D.C. and Maryland – from Southern Maryland through north Baltimore County, Kelson established a special fund for elderly patients who cannot afford necessary dental work on their own.

“My hat goes off to these people.” Kelson said, surveying the Mission staff and their teams of volunteers. “I hope we can do something like this, even on a smaller scale, in Silver Spring next year.”