Dental clinic vision makes County couple stars of community action

7 years ago

PRESQUE ISLE and VAN BUREN, Maine — Dr. Norma Desjardins and her husband Paul’s community action story began in Van Buren nearly 50 years ago when they attended the very first years of the Head Start program. Decades later, they have realized their dream to offer dental care to all County children.

On May 18, community action leaders from around Northern New England welcomed the couple to the annual Community Action Conference at Sunday River to honor them as Maine Stars of Community Action.

“It was a tremendous honor and pleasure to pay tribute to such a wonderful couple who have had such a profound impact on the lives of so many Aroostook County Families,” said Aroostook County Action Program executive director/CEO Jason Parent. “Paul and Norma Desjardins truly embody the spirit and essence of community action. Their dream to establish a pediatric dental clinic to serve all residents of our region and the resulting efforts to bring it to life are most worthy of celebrating.

“Their selection as the State of Maine’s ‘Star of Community Action’ award recipients for 2017 is a tribute to their vision, hard work, and partnership and support of our County community.”

Tufts University, where Norma Desjardins received her dental degree in 1992, has hailed her “Maine’s Tooth Fairy.” Upon finishing school, she and Paul set up practice in their hometown of Van Buren, bringing comprehensive dentistry to the community as a way of giving back to the 2,500 residents who were otherwise without local dental care.

They eventually moved their growing family to Presque Isle, where Norma served as the Head Start dental adviser and the dental representative on ACAP’s Health Advisory Board. She was also dental supervisor for the agency’s hygienist. She continues to serve in both capacities today.

When the Desjardins recognized a great need for low-cost pediatric dental services for children and young families of northern Maine, their dream of opening the St. Apollonia Dental Clinic was born. Aptly named after the patron saint of dentistry, the clinic is now a thriving practice serving thousands of patients, most of which are low-income and would not otherwise have access to dental care.

The Desjardins were aware for many years that children with MaineCare had limited or no dental service since many providers did not accept MaineCare payments. They began exploring a way to establish a children’s dental clinic for families of all income and payment sources. ACAP served as the fiscal agent for the Desjardins and supported them in establishing a 501(c)(3), assisted with grant writing, and served as the holder of grant funds. But that was just the beginning of the support the Desjardins rallied from their community.

“From the beginning, this wasn’t going to be the ‘Desjardins’ clinic,’” the couple said. “This clinic is the community’s dental health clinic.”

With ACAP’s partnership, they built public awareness and support. They taught themselves to write grants to private foundations and secured $65,000. They made presentations to Kiwanis, Knights of Columbus, VFW and American Legion. The clinic became the Presque Isle Rotary Club’s special project, which helped raise another $38,000, enough to open the clinic’s first operatory.

Since opening in 2012, the clinic has grown exponentially, as has the annual Festival of Trees event that serves as the St. Apollonia Dental Clinic’s largest fundraiser.

“Even with that event, Norma and Paul Desjardins gave back to their local community action agency,” said Parent. “They partnered with us, allowing us to build the ACAP Tree of Giving out of boxes of cereal donated by our employees to help stock our community food pantries in Presque Isle and Houlton. That tree, adorned with decorations handmade by students in our Early Care and Education programs, invited event attendees to place a voting ticket in the canister with the knowledge that the token would result in another box of cereal donated to the cause by three of our local IGA stores in central Aroostook.”

Parent added, “They helped bring home the message, yet again, about supporting the most vulnerable in our community.”