Kris Volcheck, D.D.S., M.B.A., had achieved what many would call a dream, working as a dentist in a lucrative private practice. But he felt something was missing. Working as a volunteer at a Phoenix homeless shelter, he found out what it was.
His patients at the shelter had teeth in what Volcheck describes as the worst condition he had ever seen. Volcheck knew that the health implications were likely to be devastating and far-reaching. “When a young pregnant woman suffers from oral infections, she’s going to have a low-birth weight baby,” he explains. “When a diabetic has poor teeth, he can’t manage his disease through diet.”
The experience was a turning point for the dentist. “After trying to figure out what to do in my life, I realized that it was staring right at me,” Volcheck says. He went to work for Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), first as a case manager, and finally returning to dentistry to establish a free dental clinic that has now served thousands of homeless men and women in the Phoenix area.
For developing a volunteer-driven model for delivering free dental care to the homeless, Volcheck was named one of 10 recipients of the 2010 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award. The award honors exceptional men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities.
The CASS Dental Clinic for the Homeless began serving patients 10 years ago in a converted mobile home. Today, it operates from a $1.5 million building, using the latest equipment from the top dental supply companies in the country, and with in-kind support from dental laboratories nationwide. In all, it serves more than 6,000 homeless patients. “We started with two chairs and 20 volunteers,” Volcheck said. “Almost overnight, we grew to 300 volunteer dentists, hygienists and assistants. We do comprehensive dentistry, including full mouth restorations, and we do it all for free.”
Volcheck feels a kinship with his homeless patients that he didn’t feel working in private practice. “I see myself in each of them,” he said. “I see all of us in each of them.”
Community Health Leaders National Program Director Janice Ford Griffin said that the selection committee honored Volcheck for his creativity and courage in helping people who are homeless. “Dr. Volcheck’s genuine compassion and generous spirit are the foundation for his commitment to helping homeless people regain their health and potential for productive lives. He is tenacious and creative in his efforts to recruit other dentists and volunteers to participate in the CASS programs that bring mutual benefits and enrichment to both the professionals and the homeless patients.”
Volcheck also works with the Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health to mentor students to prepare them for dental school, and the school’s senior students spend a year working at Volcheck’s clinic. “I tell them, ‘After you’ve worked with our patients, you will be better dentists,’” said Volcheck.
Volcheck’s latest project is a new school-based dental clinic for impoverished children. The CASS Dental Clinic for Children, which serves the Murphy school district in Phoenix, provides comprehensive preventative and restorative care to 2,200 children. Volcheck had previously worked with local schools to provide dental care to poor children about once a year, but he only filled cavities. “We needed to get the kids into our clinic on a regular basis for cleanings and fluoride treatments. So I told the parents, ‘You bring in your kids for regular cleanings, and I’ll transform your smile too.’ Now they’re coming in every three months, and we’re finally seeing fewer cavities.”