Connestee Falls News | Lifestyles

Mother Teresa challenged us to “always meet each other with a smile for the smile is the beginning of love.” But, what do you when you don’t like your smile because you haven’t been able to afford regular visits to the dentist, or you weren’t in a position to practice good dental hygiene throughout your life? You head on up to Cashiers for an appointment with the Blue Ridge Free Dental Clinic, and start a healthy regiment of caring for your teeth and smile!

The clinic is a fully operational dental office whose motto is to “restore lives, one tooth at a time!” Unlike a traditional dental office where you show proof of insurance, and receive a bill at the end of your service, patients are seen by one of 14 volunteer dentists who donate their time and expertise to qualifying patients.

Among the team of volunteer dentists is Connestee Falls’ resident Dr. Robert (Bob) Henkel who found the clinic was a “perfect match” during his retirement years.

“I found that the Blue Ridge Free Dental Clinic was the right opportunity for me,” he shared. “Its Christian nature and mission was exactly what I was looking for. Every Thursday since January, I have volunteered to treat patients. Being there has made me aware of how important this clinic is to western North Carolina.”

It was founded in 2003 by a group of local churches who wanted to address the dental needs of the underserved in this area. With funding provided by the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina, the clinic began its operation with a one-time, three-day clinic and provided 300 patients with free dental care.

Today, the clinic has performed over 70,000 procedures and has more than 23,000 patient visits – a value of more than $11 million. Its expanded service now includes emergency, restorative and preventative dental care, and their doors are open five days a week.

“Our volunteer dentists are the heart of our organization,” Executive Director Melanie D. Jones shared. “In the last month alone, Dr. Henkel has performed 76 procedures with a value of over $16,000 – at absolutely no cost to the patient. They donate their expertise for procedures including fillings, extractions, crowns, root canals and even dentures. Beyond the procedures performed by our volunteers, they offer encouragement and hope to our patients – we are truly grateful for their kindness!” she continued.

The Blue Ridge Free Clinic isn’t Dr. Henkel’s first time giving back.

His heart for using his skills to help others goes back to his years as a dental student. While in school, he had a life changing experience while volunteering with the indigent migrant farm worker community in Colorado. It was there he witnessed a level of poverty, and the impact of not having proper medical and dental care had on a person’s life, that he just couldn’t shake. “That experience truly affected me for the rest of my life,” he said.  

Throughout his life and career Henkel has participated in local outreach clinics through his church. He worked closely with a domestic abuse shelter in Boston where he provided free dentistry to victims and their children. He also provided children – who are still affected by radiation induced deformities stemming from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine – with free dental care through the Chernobyl Children’s Project.

Many of Dr. Henkel’s patients at the clinic are recovering from addiction, specifically with methamphetamine abuse – a highly addictive drug that damages teeth and gums. Between the patients’ low socio-economic status, poor diet, barriers to a living a healthy lifestyle and the cost to visit a dentist, the clinic is more than a “mouthsaver,” it’s a lifesaver!

The average yearly income for some of the residents in the mountain areas is less than the national poverty level. Add that to the cost of a single dental visit, which can range between $500 to $1,000, and it is almost more than a whole month’s paycheck. The clinic removes the financial burden so patients can receive care.

“This has been an amazing experience. The generosity and enthusiasm of all of the professionals is contagious. I am truly blessed to be able to give back and use my dental and surgical skills to help those in need. The satisfaction of donating my time, skills and financial support has proven to be beyond rewarding. I feel lucky to have found something that utilized my previous skills,” said Henkel.

“Dr. Henkel is wonderful! He is fully engaged, and motivated by his compassion for people in need. Our patients love his kind and encouraging personality. He has helped strengthen our organization by working with local and national entities to secure funding, supply donations and new partnerships,” Jones explained.

Dr. Henkel is a 1990 graduate of Northwestern University Dental School. For 28 years he cared for patients in the Boston area through his general dentistry practice where he focused on reconstructive dentistry and oral and periodontal surgery.

Along with volunteering at the clinic, Henkel and his wife Liz are members of the Cedar Mountain Rotary, a satellite club of Pisgah Forest Rotary. Earlier this year, Henkel got on his Honda GoldWing and provided support aid for cyclists riding in the Assault on the Carolinas challenge. He helped navigate cyclists to the finish line safely and put 250 miles on his bike.

For Henkel, who “truly loves helping others rebuild their smiles and restore their function,” he sees the confidence blossom in his patients, and how they give love through their smiles!

For more information visit the Blue Ridge Free Dental Clinic website at


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