Last March, somewhere around 2,000 churchgoers amassed in University Hall to show their support for the social justice advocacy group IMPACT and its twofold agenda of seeking more affordable housing for the area’s low-income residents and free dental care for the uninsured. While the former issue received mixed commitment from the city and county, tooth care received unanimous backing from the medical community, with the Charlottesville Free Clinic pledging to hire a dentist by March 2009 to treat the approximately 1,000 local citizens on waiting lists.
Eight months later, the Free Clinic’s Erika Viccellio stood in front of a portion of those same parishioners—around 650—at IMPACT’s Annual Assembly Agenda on October 27 to give them a progress report on her agency’s remarkable efforts. Way ahead of schedule, the Clinic has already hired a dentist and two dental assistants.
“We’ve treated 20 patients just this month,” she said (to cheers), compared to only 40 all of last year. While the program is still getting started, it will become fully operational early next year.
Area congregations came together under one roof last week to choose the topic for IMPACT’s third annual push on local government.
“For nearly 10 years, we’ve been trying to make some headway,” says Viccellio. Then last November, the Free Clinic’s board voted to hire a full-time dentist in lieu of simply relying on volunteer help to take on those waiting for tooth care.
That same month, IMPACT decided to focus on health care as an issue to tackle, and months of research led to free dental care being chosen as the aspect to pursue. Their vocal backing provided an overwhelming push. “They really helped bring the community’s attention to this dire need,” Viccellio says.
Now it is all happening again, with the more than 600 churchgoers picking the area of education this go-around in an extremely tight vote on the night of October 27. While 234 members of the audience carried the day, 204 cast votes for IMPACT to address jobs and wages instead, including 48 votes alone from the Church of the Incarnation.
“I personally am disappointed,” says Incarnation’s Susan Pleiss, who is also an IMPACT board member. In a congregational caucus right before the vote, Incarnation’s 70 present members deliberated whether to cast all their votes for jobs or split it. “It was an interesting dilemma for our congregation,” she says. After some deliberation, a third of their support went towards education.
Over the next few months, research groups will narrow down a specific facet to focus on, as they did last year with the larger topic of health care. Concurrently, IMPACT will help the Free Clinic try to find donors to raise the $300,000 that the first year of the dental program will cost.
“We are counting on the community to recognize the desperation of the need,” says Viccellio. With a normal operating budget of $700,000, she says the dental care costs are “daunting.” And while IMPACT normally does not offer fiscal support to their causes, the Free Clinic’s director hopes they can make an exception this time. “I’m hopeful the congregations will make an investment,” Viccellio says.
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