A Wink And Smile For Mel

March 20, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Residents of Mel Trotter Ministries’ live-in alcohol recovery program are seeing things more clearly these days and some have more reason to smile, too.

Part of the reason is that in addition to receiving treatment for alcohol or drug addiction,  the 70 males and 40 females currently participating in the mission’s year-long resident program have access to vision and dental care either free or at greatly reduced costs.

Mel Trotter has been operating both vision and dental clinics in-house at its facility on 225 Commerce Ave. SW for about four years. Residents request appointments and staff line up the professionals and schedule appointments. Area businesses donate money to help cover the cost of the services, and some of the vision and dental services are donated by the professionals who volunteer their time, said Doug Redford, director of development for Mel Trotter.

“A lot of the more expensive dental procedures are covered pro bono and the resident is required to pay only a small amount,” he added. “This has just been life changing for a lot of residents. The change in self esteem — it’s like somebody just turned on a light in a dark room. It makes all the difference.”

Presently, 10 optometrists, 16 dentists and 14 dental hygienists volunteer their services at the clinics, and appointments are scheduled based on their availability, Redford said. Last month, residents scheduled a total of 35 vision and dental appointments combined and received $10,511 worth of services.

Optometrist Thomas Reyburn, volunteer director of the Mel Trotter Vision Clinic, said frame suppliers donate discontinued eyeglass frames to Mel Trotter, and the Optical Supply lab in Grand Rapids fills the lens prescriptions at no cost.

Residents of the live-in program aren’t gainfully employed, and the end goal is to get them well so they can re-enter the work force and resume their lives.

“How in the world are they going to work if they can’t see?” Reyburn remarked. “Our goal is to take down as many barriers as we can that prevent them from doing tasks that we would want them to do in the community. We make sure their eye health is in good shape.”

Dentist Charles Cole, volunteer director of the dental clinic, said the kinds of habits that residents of the ministry are recovering from tend to take a toll on their teeth. Cocaine, amphetamine and meth use all make teeth decay fast, he noted. Getting “better” means developing a level of self-respect and esteem, and when someone has, say, a missing front tooth, appearance can be an issue.

“We do what we can and accommodate with some temporary artificial teeth so at least they can smile without embarrassment when they’re out in public,” he said. “That’s a wonderful thing. When they are back in the world, hopefully, they can get a job and insurance coverage and be able to build on that.”

Since there’s a limited number of volunteers serving the dental clinic, services are limited to basic care and alleviation of pain and suffering. Some volunteer dentists may choose to do more and take patients to their own offices where they are better equipped to take dental work to the next level, Cole noted.

It takes a heart, but also a level of tough love to do volunteer work at the clinic, he said. Residents at the ministry are still recovering from bad habits and some may have a bad attitude, especially the newer residents who are generally in the worst condition because they’ve just come off their addiction, he said.

When Cole started volunteering at the clinic, he lived in Grand Rapids. He now lives in Lowell and has a practice in Ionia, but that hasn’t changed his dedication to the cause. He sums up his continuing volunteerism this way: “It’s about doing the right thing. It’s about paybacks. It’s about helping those that are trying to help themselves. It’s about helping people get back into the community. It’s about helping to relieve pain and suffering.”

At this point, the clinics are open only to residents of the full-time recovery program, not to others who access the mission’s services, Redford said.

“We’d like to expand it some day, but it just depends on how many more professionals we can get to be a part of the program,” he said. “That’s what’s kind of holding us back.”    

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