Grand Opening of Open Arms Dental Clinic

The community helped us achieve the vision to own a dental clinic building at 209 E. Commerce Ct., Elkhorn.  Thank you!

It was the end of 2018 when we learned that our property neighbor, a private dentist, was planning to move by the end of 2019. There are 2 buildings on our shared parking lot, and we already occupied one building for the medical services and food pantry. A feasibility study was completed by our ad hoc group of 2 private dentists, a realtor, lawyer, and investment broker to assess the building facility and the proposed business model to sustain a charitable dental clinic. In addition, we sought support from the Burlington Dental Society and Walworth County Health and Human Services to expand our dental program to meet the needs in the community, and they unanimously supported our efforts. Further, our relationship with Marquette Dental school was growing with a signed Affiliation Agreement to host D4 students. With the trifecta of positive influences, we immediately set in motion a capital campaign with the intent to purchase the dental building. The GENEROUS COMMUNITY was instrumental to allow us to assume full ownership of the building paying 100% in cash on December 30, 2019. With minor renovations and equipment repairs, we started seeing patients in the new building on January 28, 2020.  Certainly, there have been challenges with the COVID crisis, however we have a dedicated team that will be open for dental services Monday – Thursdays starting August 1, 2020.  A formal ribbon cutting event with Delta Dental Foundation of Wisconsin, elected officials, and dignitaries will take place on Wednesday, August 19, 2020 at 4:00 PM at 209 E. Commerce Ct, Elkhorn, Wisconsin.

To reflect on a journey such as the one we have been on with Open Arms Free Clinic, Inc. is a remarkable exercise.  Open Arms Free Clinic, Inc. (OAFC) first opened its doors to serve the residents of Walworth County in November 2012.  The founding board of directors created the private, community-based 501c3 charitable organization with a dedicated mission to better understand and serve with compassion the health and wellness needs of low-income, uninsured residents of Walworth County. Providing primary medical care to the poor was its sole focus.  The operations ran on 100% private donations, 100% volunteers, and 100% heart and grit to meet the needs of our community (at the time there were 13,000 residents with no health insurance.)

The 2015-2020 Walworth County Community Health Improvement Plan listed “Access to Oral Health Care” as the top need to address. True to the Open Arm’s mission, as we cared for the medical needs of our patients, the need for dental services was alarming and we were determined to find the solutions within our organization.  Open Arms led the charge to chair a newly formed Walworth County Oral Health Coalition with community stakeholders. With the support of a founding OAFC board member, Dr. Robert Dillman, DDS, who had chaired the Wisconsin Dental Association 2013 Mission of Mercy in Lake Geneva (Walworth County), we began seeking the opportunities to address the issue of oral health access for the poor.  We collected donated dental equipment and supplies, moved into a larger clinic space, and in April 22, 2015, held our first dental service with volunteers Dr. Dillman and his long-time assistant, Jill Bonner.  

Open Arms held a dental clinic once a month with our volunteer team and while it was difficult recruiting additional volunteer dentists, we were realizing that the integrative medical-dental model was positive for our patients. In 2015, the board hired its first paid employee – the Executive Director, Sara Nichols. While still funded primarily on private donations, a grant award from the Wisconsin Dental Association to fund dental supplies gave us hope that the dental program could expand.  In 2016, a 2-year demonstration grant award by the Delta Dental of Wisconsin Foundation allowed us to fund a paid part-time dental program coordinator/dental assistant and this created the support for five (5) additional volunteer dentists to come on board to help.  By the end of 2015, we had 55 dental patient visits that included initial dental exams with X-ray, 6 tooth extractions, 5 restorative care and 7 hygienic cleanings. All services were provided free of cost to patients and as expected, there was an endless wait list of patients requesting an initial dental exam. 

This early history is shared because it was the Wisconsin Department of Public Health 2017 Grant Award, the United Way of Walworth County, and other key private donors who were pivotal for us to build the capacity and strengthen the foundation of sustainable medical and dental care for low-income, uninsured, and underinsured residents of Walworth County. In 2017, we added a part-time paid dentist, hygienist, dental assistant, and program coordinator.  We expanded our 2-chair dental practice to 4-chairs in partnership with Inspiration Ministries, Inc.   We cared for adults and elderly. By 2018, we were approved as a Medicaid dental provider – the only general dentist practice in Walworth County to do this!  We were able to care for Medicaid-enrolled children and special needs adults. By 2019, we added more service hours with combined paid and volunteer staff, increased prevention, and restorative care, and even had dentures provided to a dozen patients.  The county’s Seal-A-Smile hygienists, school nurses, and local pediatricians were recognizing Open Arms Dental Clinic as a trusted resource for their families and the calls for dental care continued to grow.  

To reflect on the past eight years that Open Arms Free Clinic, Inc. has been in operation, where there was once no charitable dentist in Walworth County, to now that Open Arms has completed close to $1M worth of free dental care (i.e. 5,689 dental procedures completed between 2015-2019), there are many more smiling faces that we have been able to be part of.  The swift call and response of our community has been astounding. While the 2020 COVID crisis has been a serious hurdle, the dedication of our staff, volunteers, and community demonstrated that the Open Arms mission is an essential service. The next chapter of the dental program will see a full-time paid staff and students gaining a community clinic training opportunity from Gateway, Blackhawk, Milwaukee Area Tech, and Marquette.  We are grateful for the support of the entire community for supporting Open Arms on our journey. We hope that the next 5-year Community Health Improvement Plan no longer lists access to dental care a top priority – because we are here to stay. 

Patient Testimony:  

“Open Arms is a God Send! I was lucky enough to be seen by Doctor Dillman. I have to say without a doubt he treated me with care and compassion more than any dentist I’ve seen! Open Arms is helping me with all my medical and dental conditions, and my meds. Thank you to all the volunteers who treated me with dignity.”

Partners Testimony: 

We are so fortunate to have the Open Arms Free Clinic in Walworth County.  Our Board of Directors and Community Impact Committee can attest to the significant service they provide ensuring everyone has access to quality medical, dental and vision care.  The United Way of Walworth County believes that for all of us to succeed as a community, everyone must succeed.  Open Arms exemplifies this mission.  Recently, I received a phone call from a desperate man who had an abscessed tooth and no means to pay for care, fearing he might lose his job because the pain was overwhelming.  How wonderful to know I could give him the Open Arms phone number and he would receive exceptional treatment, with compassion.  Open Arms is the only provider of these health services for our uninsured, low income and underserved residents.  They are also exemplary, active leaders in our community and well-respected by more than 40 partner agencies of the United Way. 

~ Tammy Dunn, Executive Director, United Way of Walworth County

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When I think about the value of Open Arms Free Clinic to our community, I think about how Open Arms Free Clinic has become a vital part of our Walworth County Community. Open Arms Free Clinic has partnered with our Health and Human Services Department on a variety of programs including Walworth County Suicide Prevention, Education, Awareness Coalition, Walworth County Drug and Alcohol Coalition, and the Oral Health Coalition.  For many years they have partnered with the Public Health department to become an access point for immunizations within the community. Further, they have provided leadership to a community coalition to address the shortage of dental services in our community.  Through their dedication to the community, they have become one of the largest access points for dental services, providing basic dental care to the uninsured and underinsured in Walworth County. Their volunteers provide local access to medical services including access to necessary lab testing and medications. In addition, Open Arms Free Clinic provides access to behavioral health treatment in support of a holistic approach to care.

Thirty-nine percent of Walworth County households are considered asset limited, income constrained, employed. This means that more than a third of Walworth County families are living day to day, paycheck to paycheck. Open Arms Free Clinic is a vital component of the safety net that assures Walworth County families have access to medical, dental, and behavioral health services. Without their support many individuals within our community would not have the access they require to lead healthy lives.  I am grateful to have Open Arms Free Clinic as a part of our community.

~ Elizabeth Aldred, Director, Walworth County Health and Human Services

READ what Delta Dental of Wisconsin Foundation shared about us: