OLEAN — A woman removed the mask covering her mouth and nose. She smiled. She wept. She spoke.
“I was so glad when masks became mandatory because it gave me a way to hide so nobody could see my teeth or that fact I wasn’t smiling or wouldn’t smile,” she said. “I’m not going to hide them anymore. Because I can smile.”
As the woman revealed a beaming grin, so too did others.
She drove six hours from her home on the Pennsylvania-Delaware line to SUNY Jamestown Community College’s Cattaraugus County Campus to receive much needed dental care. Others spent the night in their parked cars to ensure they received similar help.
A young mother, holding her baby close in a carrier in the chilly morning, waited in line for hours for an eye exam and a pair of glasses.
The feel-good stories coming from the Remote Area Medical (RAM) clinic held Sept. 11-12 were plentiful. The main characters range from those who were helped to the volunteers and donors who made it possible.
“Of the wonderful top 10 things I have experienced in my life, this is in the top 10,” said Paula Snyder, executive director of JCC’s Cattaraugus County Campus and clinic co-coordinator. “And that’s after 42 years of nursing. I’m amazed at what was delivered to people.”
More than 300 uninsured and underserved individuals received medical, dental, and optical care at the two-day clinic put on by RAM, a non-profit organization whose mission is to prevent pain and alleviate suffering by providing free, quality healthcare to those in need. More than 100 COVID-19 vaccinations were also distributed by the Cattaraugus County Health Department at the clinic.
“It was unlike anything I have seen before,” said Daniel DeMarte, JCC’s president. “These were individuals who desperately needed care. It was one of those events that you really had to be there to feel a sense of what it was all about. This clinic is so important.”
How important? DeMarte, who volunteered at the clinic, cited the 2019 New York state health rankings, in which Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties rate near the bottom for health factors that affect physical, mental, and social well-being.
“What should Jamestown Community College be doing in the wellness arena to improve where we are right now?” DeMarte asked. “Because of the pandemic and because of this event, we have set the stage for what comes next. We’re going to open up the conversation on wellness.”
JCC’s Snyder and Jim Mahar, leader of the BonaResponds volunteer group from St. Bonaventure University, played a large role in advocating for an Olean clinic and planning for it. They worked alongside community leaders, healthcare professionals, and volunteers.
Many local organizations, groups, and churches pitched in to provide assistance, donations, and supplies. JCC nursing students, St. Bonaventure University healthcare professional students, Canisius College’s pre-medical program, and University at Buffalo dental students were among 300 volunteers.
“Enormous thank you to donors, volunteers, to the steering committee, to the last person who was helping pick up trash or load up the truck at the end,” Mahar said. “Without everyone, this is just a good idea. If we had this idea and didn’t have donors, it wouldn’t have happened. If we had this idea and didn’t have volunteers, it wouldn’t have happened. If we didn’t have dentists or eye doctors, all of it …. it literally takes a village. I know that saying is overused, but it legitimately does pull this all together.”
Linda Mecca, a JCC employee who worked alongside Snyder in planning the clinic, said volunteers came from as far as San Francisco, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harribsurg, Pa.
“One of the women that I talked to who came from hours away said she was an EMT, and she looks for ways to volunteer on her weekends off to help the community,” Mecca said. “This was the closest one to her that weekend so she came up.”
When clinic staffing was short on Saturday night into Sunday, Dr. Ravi Purushuttam, a doctor new to the Olean area, volunteered to oversee the medical clinic. His wife lended a hand in the dentistry tent.
Fohl, director of strategic partnerships at Olean General Hospital, was largely responsible for recruiting healthcare professionals to volunteer at the clinic. She said RAM staff, volunteers, and medical professionals “came together like an orchestra.”
RAM’s giant semi truck of supplies from the Knoxville, Tenn. area pulled onto the JCC campus on the Friday before the weekend clinic. RAM brought along an administrative team and a core staff of volunteers. During setup, RAM clinic coordinator Poppy Green quizzed each of them on the organization’s mission statement.
“Each paid administrative person and each core volunteer was expected to know the mission,” Snyder said. “That was really impressive. What happened as a result of people living up to that mission statement? All the services lived up to that exactly.”
The interaction that left the greatest impression on Mahar was the one he had with the woman who drove 12 hours round trip to have her teeth worked on.
She told Mahar she had been dealing with depression and other health issues. Her son showed her a RAM documentary video on YouTube, and she was determined to go, even if it meant sleeping in her car. She could afford gas for the trip and time away from home, but she didn’t have the means for large scale dental care.
“When she came, she didn’t know what to expect,” Mahar said. “She was absolutely beyond thrilled. More importantly, she said her faith in the goodness of people was restored. When she got back home, she texted me just to say ‘Hey, I made it home. Thanks again.’”