In the back of a small storefront in Farmingville that houses an evangelical church, an all-purpose room usually used for meals and Bible study classes is transformed into a dental office on any given Saturday.
Beach chaise longues sub for dental chairs. Two portable units, slightly bigger than a car battery, power the drills and suction, which uses a 2-liter soda bottle to hold the water. A handheld instrument takes X-rays that go directly to a laptop set up on the counter.
In the front of the One More for Jesus church, men and women sit in chairs along the walls, waiting for their turn. It’s clear they know each other, either from attending the church or from their neighborhood. They chat with one another in Spanish as children run around or listen to a cartoon on dental health playing on a television screen.
Husband-and-wife dentists Julio and Hilsha Carrion, along with their pastor, Ruben Cruzate, started Smiles for Hope Dental Ministries eight years ago at a local dentist’s office, but ended up at the church, located in a community where the need for the nonprofit’s services is great, last year. Cruzate, 57, said the ministry is part of the church’s wider outreach, which includes providing clothing and food to the homeless and needy, and teaching Spanish to English-speaking members of the community. The area around Horseblock Road is home to many immigrants who work as day laborers. Oftentimes, dental care falls to the bottom of the priority list because many of them don’t have medical or dental insurance, and often wait for a problem to arise before seeking help.
“There is a lack of education, and a lack of dental insurance,” said Julio Carrion, 38, an assistant professor and director of periodontal research at Stony Brook University’s School of Dental Medicine. He is also co-pastor of the church.
Smiles for Hope offers services that range from cleanings to fillings to extractions.
Carrion said he remembers the moment he was called to serve in this particular way.
“I came home from work one day and sat on the corner of my bed, and prayed — ‘I am here, I am available,’ I said.”
In addition to ministering at One More for Jesus, Carrion is a husband, father of three young girls and a professor with his own dental patients at Stony Brook Dental Associates. He runs a laboratory at Stony Brook that is researching the use of stem cells to regenerate tissue around teeth and failing dental implants. Still, he and his wife, Hilsha, 36, who is also a dentist, wanted to give more.
The next day, Carrion took the idea to Douglas Foerth, a dentist who, along with his dentist wife, Sheila, did dental ministries all over the world. The couple let One More for Jesus use their Setauket practice, working with them to help the needy. Cruzate would pick up patients and transport them to the office, but it soon became clear that bringing the office to them was a better idea. Since the church is near the population it was created to serve, the Carrions and Cruzate relocated the dental ministry there, obtained the proper permits and set up a 501(c)3 organization.
“It took off, and here we are now,” Carrion said.
More volunteers needed
The clinic can serve up to 20 to 30 patients on the days it operates, which is usually once every other month in the afternoon. Cruzate and the Carrions hope to expand it to at least once a month. The need is there, they said.
“People from here, they spread the word,” Hilsha Carrion said.
All three agree that more volunteers, from dentists to dental hygienists, and money are needed to expand the service properly. Lack of privacy and space, as well as not having adequate advanced equipment to work with, have also presented challenges.
Many of the patients are Hispanic, but the clinic is open to everyone. No questions are asked about finances, and visitors are told how to maintain proper hygiene and often given toothpaste and toothbrushes.
On a recent Saturday, volunteers included three other dentists and two dental students attending to about 25 patients. They administered cleanings, completed fillings, fixed a crown and did three extractions. Patients who require more advanced or specialized care are referred to clinics or other dental programs.
One of Smile for Hope’s recent patients was Paco Aguilar, 49, who lives in Farmingville and works for a tree service company. Through a translator, he said it would be his first checkup in a while and that he had come to the clinic to get treatment for pain in an upper tooth.
“It is good to get it checked out,” he said.
Education is a big part of the work they do, said the Carrions and Cruzate. During the checkups, the dentists speak to the patients about good hygiene, how to brush and floss properly and the importance of regular dental visits to identify signs of trouble.
Periodontal disease, in which bacteria get caught under the gum and can cause tooth bone loss, is one reason why proper brushing and flossing are important throughout one’s life. The American Dental Association even links diabetes to tooth loss, and Carrion said other system diseases, such as cardiovascular problems, are related to oral health. Up to 50 percent of the U.S. population has some form of periodontitis, Carrion said.
Dentist Fadia Bazina, 37, of Ronkonkoma, was at the church on a recent Saturday and showed children the correct way to brush.
“I like the idea to help the people,” said Bazina, who came to the United States in 2012 from Libya and is working on her doctorate at Stony Brook. “Some people don’t know how to get to the right person” for help, she says.
Many of the dentists volunteering at the clinic come from other countries. Mohamed al-Bahrawy, 34, lives in Port Jefferson but is originally from Egypt. He is a foreign-trained dentist who is earning his doctorate from Ain Shams University in Cairo while doing his research in Carrion’s university laboratory on stem cell rejuvenation. He volunteered at Smiles for Hope recently and worked alongside Carrion.
“If we have the problem of a patient in a bad situation, we want to get them in a more stable situation,” al-Bahrawy said. “If we can get them early, we can solve the problem.”
One More for Jesus grew from an outreach of its main church at the time, Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle. The storefront was used originally as a place to help the homeless and those in need of clothing and food. In 2008, it became clear to both Cruzate and Julio Carrion that a church in that storefront space would serve to bring the gospel to those people.
In addition to other colleagues and students working alongside him and his wife, Carrion is also a role model for Cruzate’s two sons, who helped recently with paperwork and errands. David, 16, hopes to become a dentist. Jonathan, 18, a freshman at Stony Brook University, said Carrion inspires him.
“He’s like an uncle to me,” Jonathan said, adding that he admires how Carrion “keeps a balanced life with work and family and his ministry.”
The Carrions received their dentistry degrees from the University of Puerto Rico School of Dental Medicine in their native Puerto Rico, where they met and married. They came to Stony Brook University in 2004 for general practice residencies. Julio Carrion said he wants to show others that hard work is the way to a bright future.
“These kids need someone they can talk to,” he said. “They need to know my experience, how I got where I am. We need to have more mentors. That’s why I went into education.”
As often as possible, the church also takes its dental charity work to Mixquiahuala in the Hidalgo region of Mexico, a place where poverty is so severe that dental care is almost nonexistent. The Carrions and other dentists who make the trip treat adolescents at El Refugio, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in the town. They usually stay about 10 days and are also joined by church members and their families.
“We tell them, we fix your teeth and the Lord fixes your heart,” Carrion said.
At the end of a long day in Farmingville, Hilsha Carrion came up front to see a patient’s newborn. Yasmin Angulo, 35, of Patchogue, had come by to get a checkup after months of caring for her infant, who was born prematurely.
“Unfortunately, sometimes Hispanics don’t have the resources to have regular dental care,” said Angulo, who lauded the church’s work.
Carrion and Cruzate take the praise in stride, noting that serving one’s community is important to the service of God.
“By doing this free dental care, we get to reach out to our communities,” Carrion said. “We teach our church members that it is better to give than to receive.”