A single driver starts up a mobile dental van in predawn hours and steers it toward the Key Peninsula. By the time the van doors open for business, at the Key Peninsula Community Services, the driver has acquired a full cargo of state-licensed dental staff. All aboard this state-of the-art mobile dental clinic are volunteers, except the driver.

“I always expect some burly guy to drive that thing but out comes little Yvette,” says Cristi Watson, executive director of KPCS, which is the destination of the van.

Yvette Townsend is not only the driver, she is the South Sound mobile dental unit coordinator for Northwest Medical Teams International, Inc. (NWMTI) serving the area from Seattle to Olympia. According to the dental staff, Townsend makes the program happen, from gassing up in Olympia to hooking up at the KP Community Services center, and all that goes between.

There is seldom any down time for Townsend and the staff who may see as many as 15 patients per trip in the two chairs aboard the van. Townsend says they begin with patients needing urgent care and the first patient, this Saturday morning, requires a root canal. That procedure takes two and a half hours, throwing the entire schedule off for the day.

The patient exits saying repeatedly to the staff, “Thank you. God bless.”

There is no rush, according to Townsend, which is one advantage of the dental van. They can take the time to concentrate on the quality of their work. Their practice is not dependent upon the number of patients they see. Her favorite story is of one former patient who, upon receiving an inheritance, declared she wanted to give it to the dental van.

Townsend’s enthusiasm for the program is shared by the professional staff, which includes hygienist Linda Cox, dental assistant Luke Snyder and dentist Jill Hansen. This is the first assignment for Dr. Hansen but Cox and Snyder are regular volunteers. Snyder is a single parent who is completing dental assistant training. He likes to volunteer for the van because “it feels good to do things for people.”

“It’s one way to make a contribution… This is my calling,” Snyder says, adding that he experienced living “on the other side of the tracks.”

The dental van is part of a nine-van fleet belonging to NWMTI, an international disaster assistance program. The program’s first assistance to the Pacific Northwest began in 1989 with a mobile dental clinic to care for needy families. Having the dental clinic van on the Key Peninsula is thanks, in large part, to the efforts of Jennifer Dean, assistant director of missions at Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church in Gig Harbor.

At first, it was Dean’s plan to locate the dental van at Chapel Hill but she says it “was not a good fit,” and she began to make calls looking for people with needs that were worthy of the church’s time and money. Dean found the perfect fit when one of her calls connected to Watson. The church was looking to provide dental care for low-income families and the homeless and to partner with an agency dedicated to meeting local needs. Watson made it obvious to Dean that the Key Peninsula had a really big need, was excited by the offer, and told her, “Let’s do it!”

Once Dean united the dynamo pair of Cristi Watson and Yvette Townsend, access to basic dental care for needy families on the Peninsula became available. The volunteers providing the care are dedicated to their motto to “change a life for good.” When Cox, the hygienist, was asked about coming to the Key Peninsula, she said, “It’s very worthwhile, we see everything out here.” She was quick to add, “We couldn’t do this without Cristi and Yvette.”

The dental van program is looking for licensed dental volunteers and financial donations. “Just $60 provides complete care for one child,” says Dean, and recommends the Website at www.nwmti.org. The contact is Jennifer Dean, Chapel Hill Church, 853-0238, or jdean@nullchapelhillpc.org.