In a matter of days, Dentaid was forced to postpone all its overseas volunteering trips, its UK clinics came to a sudden halt and all fundraising events were cancelled. Staff were furloughed to protect precious funds and the charity’s office – transformed from disused warehouse by volunteers just a year ago – stood sadly empty.
But what didn’t stop was the ever-growing need for Dentaid’s services. Day by day the charity received more messages from homeless and vulnerable people seeking dental care. Many were in severe pain but did not know how access treatment. So with restrictions starting to ease and facilities for homeless people beginning to re-open, Dentaid is working to get its two mobile dental units back on the road.
'It’s been such a sad, frustrating time,' said the charity’s communications director, Jill Harding. 'We had just started a series of new clinics in locations, including Bournemouth and Southampton, where there is huge need among the homeless population and then it all stopped overnight. The problems haven’t gone away and we feel it’s essential we start our clinics again as soon as we safely can. We are working with our partner charities from the south coast to Yorkshire to get dates in the diary for our mobile units to return. We have been heartened by the offers from dental professionals who want to volunteer and support our work, despite all the challenges they’ve faced. We hope that once we have everything in place regarding PPE and our COVID-secure protocols, we’ll be busier than ever throughout the autumn.’
Dentaid’s mobile units visit soup kitchens, day centres and night shelters providing free dental care for the most vulnerable people in our society. By paying regular visits, volunteers build up a rapport with patients, many of whom suffer from anxiety or haven’t seen a dental professional for several years. The charity receives a growing number of requests for its services across the UK but also holds regular clinics in Leeds, York, Southampton and Winchester.
In 2019, Dentaid also saw 450 patients in Kirklees, West Yorkshire at mobile clinics held outside schools, community centres and Dewsbury Town Hall. Kirklees Council funded the project in response to the growing public health crisis being caused by people being unable to register for NHS dental care.
‘We fear that the situation will be even worse and, during lockdown, we’ve been inundated with messages from people in Kirklees asking for our help,’ added Jill. ‘It may be that we can’t offer the full range of treatments on our mobile unit straight away but our whole ethos is about helping people out of dental pain and improving oral health by giving sympathetic, practical advice – and we’ll be back doing that as soon as we can.’
Dentaid’s overseas programme – which included volunteering trips to Cambodia, Uganda, Kenya, Morocco and Malawi – has been postponed until next spring. ‘We felt we needed more time for our volunteers to fundraise for their trips, for our team leaders to set up safe itineraries and for our in country dental partners to get their own work back up and running after strictly enforced lockdowns which in some countries are still in place,' said Jill. 'Our teams work in prisons, orphanages, refugee camps, schools and community building often treating more than 150 people a day.
'Social distancing will be a challenge and we have to keep everyone safe. There’s a lot to consider but everyone shares the same goal of providing safe dental care in some of the poorest and most remote communities in the world. It’s wonderful that UK dental professionals still want to be part of this and we’ll be publishing our 2022 trip dates soon. We also want to keep supporting our projects from afar – by providing equipment, resources and support that enable our partners on the ground to deliver dental projects'.
With no mass participation fundraising events this year – Dentaid’s golf day, skydive, charity runs and bike rides were all cancelled – funding future work will be a real challenge. The Government’s furlough scheme provided a lifeline and the eight members of staff – who are supported by many more wonderful volunteers – will be gradually returning to work in the weeks ahead. The charity hopes that dental practices and companies will choose to support Dentaid and its life-changing work.
'There’s a lot to do and like so many other charities we had to put our work on hold while the need just got greater,' said Jill. 'But it’s strengthened our resolve to help those who need us most and we are grateful to all our supporters, fundraisers and volunteers for continuing to believe in us.'