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'A safety net': Columbia church brings dental care to those without insurance at new clinic



Kerri Bartlett

The Daily Herald

Santa Fe native Dr. Dennis Gardner said he can relate to his patients like few other dentists after suffering with malocclusion, characterized by upper and lower jaw misalignment, as a young boy and teenager.

"I have had surgeries on my nose and jaws, braces twice and five root canals," he said. "Anything my patients have been through, I have been through too."

After growing up on a multi-purpose farm in Santa Fe in Maury County, Gardner decided to pursue the field of dentistry to help others with complex dental issues that can affect one's quality of life. "I feel others shouldn't have to suffer through those dental issues," Gardner said. To give back, Gardner served as a volunteer dentist at the Interfaith Dental Clinic in Nashville, which now has a location in Murfreesboro, before bringing the concept to Southern Middle Tennessee. 

“In late 2016, a few of us at St. Luke UMC began exploring and looking for a mission project that would be of great benefit to Maury County and the surrounding communities. We were looking for a mission project that would stretch us and would be much bigger than St. Luke. Have we ever found that project," Gardner said.

Duck River Dental Outreach Opens

In August of last year, Gardner and a group of other members of St. Luke's Methodist Church in Columbia opened Duck River Dental Outreach clinic in Columbia — a vision six years in the making.

The office recently held an official ribbon-cutting ceremony hosted by Maury County Chamber and Economic Alliance.















Duck River Dental Outreach grew out of the belief that a healthier community is a better community, Gardner said.

"For so long, dentistry was an element of health care that was not provided in this area continuously," he said. "I volunteered in Nashville and knew we needed something like that here. I had thought about it for a long time."

Duck River Dental, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, serves patients on a sliding scale who do not have access to dental insurance. Many patients served are at or below the poverty level in Southern Middle Tennessee. Areas served thus far include those living in the Duck River Watershed, including those in Columbia, Maury County, Lewis, Lawrence, and Giles County.

"Our first patient was from Giles County," Morrison said. "We want to reach those who need care."

Rev. Don Terry, who leads St. Luke's Methodist Church, said the clinic is a testament to the congregation's dedication to helping the public in a long-term sustainable way.

"It's gratifying to be a part of a program with the potential of growing into the future and helping so many," Terry said. "The working poor need access to health care".


According to the 2020 U.S. Census, 12.2% of persons in Columbia are at or below the poverty level. The statistic closely mirrors the poverty level, 11.3%, in the greater Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro Combined Statistical Area.

Jim Morrison, Duck River Dental board member and church member, said the clinic primarily aims to assist the "working poor."

"Many workers don't have access to insurance and through our research we discovered that many at or below 200% poverty level live in the region. We knew there was a need, and that a safety net was needed for this population."

The clinic offers major dental services for well below the normal cost of such procedures as extractions and restorative dentistry. Rates are determined on an individual’s ability to pay and their annual income. 

Since opening in August of 2021, the clinic has served 76 patients and rendered $43,000 worth of care.

"There's a greater need than anticipated," Morrison said.


The clinic was formed through donations ranging from $10 to $1,000 and through the donations of equipment by area offices. 

Dr. Tom Moore, DDS, of Columbia donated his entire clinic (six months rent free) and some equipment to Duck River Dental after his retirement, which now serves as the outreach's location.

"We are very fortunate to have so many generous donations from the community," Morrison said. 

For the program to be a success Gardner explained, it requires the assistance of individuals, churches of all sizes and denominations, civic organizations, businesses, city and county government officials of Maury and surrounding counties for this to be a success.

The cost to operate the clinic annually is approximately $100,000, according to Morrison.

"It's been a journey," Morrison said. "We didn't have a safety net for the working poor. We hope to reach more as word gets out about the clinic."

The clinic, 320 N. Garden St. in Columbia, is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Fridays.

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