Fish for Teeth: Great ‘catch’ for free dental care

Dental team volunteers give this Fish for Teeth patient the royal treatment. From left

The scraping of enamel, bright light, poking and prodding isn’t what keeps most people from the dentist.

It’s the cost of dental work when you’re uninsured or underinsured that can be more frightening than the sound of the drill.

That’s why Matt and Maureen Marinkovich started Fish for Teeth in 2006 – a non-profit organization that provides dental care to people who can’t afford it.

One day a little girl at the elementary school came out of nowhere and asked Matt if he wanted to see her cavities. The girl had several decaying teeth and Matt realized a need was not being met.

Matt works as a commercial fisherman and came up with the Fish for Teeth idea during a wheel watch shift that lasted for several hours on a longline fishing vessel.

“The nature of the fishing industry is to be an opportunist,” he said. “I saw an opportunity to extract this money out of fishing and put it towards fixing people’s teeth.

Although not targeted, many rockfish are caught during the height of halibut season in the Pacific Northwest. Because releasing rockfish back into the water will kill them the fish are kept and can be sold – but only up to a certain amount. At this point fisherman can chose to keep the fish for food, give them away or the fish can be donated to a charity.

Founders Matt & Maureen Marinkovich

Matt collects over-the-limit rockfish for Fish for Teeth. He has the fish processed at Seafood Producers Co-op in Alaska, and then uses it to make and sell fish tacos in Friday Harbor. The fish taco profits are the primary funds for the organization.

In the early years fish taco sales were good and the Fish for Teeth board was growing to include dentists and the Public Health Department, but there wasn’t enough money to treat people. In 2012 someone from the Health Department heard about Medical Team International’s mobile dental van, and Fish for Teeth set off toward their goal of bringing the van to Friday Harbor.

The dental van comes with all the tools needed for dentistry and costs $1,600 for two days, and all the dentists volunteer their time.

taccoThe fish tacos were always at the forefront of funding, but in order to bring the van to Friday Harbor the Marinkovich’s had to seek funding from local service groups. Funds would not only cover the van but liability insurance, accommodation for the van’s manager and driver, and refreshments for the dental teams.

Now that the Marinkovich’s and their volunteers have been at it a bit longer, the fish taco strategy has become more efficient, and the van is almost entirely funded by taco sales.

“In 2013 we were able to go to the Rotary Club and tell them we no longer need their money,” Maureen said. “Now they’re able to give that money to someone else.”

During taco days an average of 330 tacos are sold at seven dollars each. Any other funding comes from individual donations, both large sums and small, like someone saying, “keep the change.” The van comes three times per year for two days, and treats about 30 people. That’s up to $16,000 worth of dental work for free.

“The gratitude from the patients is one of the most fulfilling parts of my professional career,” said Dr. Michael Horn, local dentist and Fish for Teeth volunteer. “I feel like Fish for Teeth is really a win-win. Whenever we finish an event I feel energized and so grateful to be able to help.”

Fish for Teeth was originally intended to treat kids whose parents can’t afford dental care, but the dental van is geared toward adults. That’s why the group has come up with a sealant program for children in second grade. This age is the best time to have the preventative procedure done and the dental van will have time and space set aside for sealants when it returns in May.

Before having their teeth sealed, kids must visit a dentist and have any cavities filled. Fish for Teeth is available to help families obtain funds for the primary dental visit.

The beauty of Fish for Teeth is that the model can be replicated anywhere, and Matt hopes to see that done in Alaska, where he spends much of his time working.

Matt has a new idea brewing to purchase a historical Bristol Bay Sailboat, which were the only boats used to catch fish in Bristol Bay, Alaska, up until 1952.

He plans to use that boat to fish and put the entire bounty towards setting up a teeth-fixing program in Sitka, AK.

The next dental van clinic will be in May.

For more information on the sealant program or to sign your child up, visit www.fishforteeth.com.