It’s been months since Raymond Thornton has felt comfortable smiling.
“With my teeth missing or infected all the time, I was always guarded with my smile,” says Thornton, who started vending newspapers for Street Roots in 2010.
But now, after receiving a brand new set of top dentures, he can’t help but beam at every customer that frequents his familiar Northeast Portland street corner.
And it’s not just because of his newfound pearly whites.
Over the past few months, Thornton’s dedicated customers to his NE 15th and Broadway corner — right in front of Peet’s Coffee — have been saving up an undisclosed amount of money to buy their ailing vendor a new set of teeth. By mid-July, Thornton had a brand-new grin.
“I found out I have an ego,” Thornton admits. “Now that I have new teeth that resemble my old ones, I let myself smile a little and it makes me so happy I end up smiling huge.”
Last year, Thornton, who lost his dental insurance in 2007, started leaving work early and fasting for days due to severe tooth pain caused by infections and untreated cavities. It didn’t go unnoticed.
“Customers started asking me with genuine concern if I was OK and if they could do anything, which I ignored for a while,” Thornton says. “As a grown man, I forgot how to ask for help.”
Despite his silence, one customer in particular, Mary, urged him to get help.
“She said, ‘If I can get you a dentist appointment, and you don’t have to pay, will you go?’ And I said yes,” says Thornton.
Within days, Thornton found himself in the Billi Odegaard Clinic, Multnomah County’s newest dental center in downtown Portland, humbled and shocked by the level of treatment he was receiving.
“They did a complete examination and included me in each and every part of it, which was amazing,” says Thornton. “The only thing I didn’t have a say in was how much it would cost and when it would get paid, which was a little bit difficult for me. But they made it clear, ‘Your job is to receive this.’ And that’s something I’m still learning to accept.”
During his month-long tooth extracting process, eventually resulting in a complete upper set of dentures, Mary and other loyal customers passed out financial pledge forms to other Peet’s frequenters to help cover the end costs.
One of Thornton’s regulars, Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish, pitched in $40 towards the fund.
“Raymond and I talk regularly, whenever I buy a copy. I was more than willing to help,” says Fish. “It’s a great story. What if we thought of everyone in our community as an extended member of our family, like Raymond? Some people feel powerless when it comes to solving the bigger picture of homelessness, but it’s really these small gestures that make change.”
And small change may be the best strategy at this point. Thornton joins thousands of Oregonians with untreated and infected teeth due to being under or uninsured. According to a 2010 Department of Human Services study, a hefty 20 percent of Oregonians over the age of 65 have lost all their teeth to decay or infection. Additionally, a 2008 Center for Disease Control report showed that only 70 percent of Oregonians visited the dentist in the last year.
Thornton is still reeling from the big-heartedness of his small community, and trying his best to share his gratitude with those who helped.
“Over 20 people have helped pay for my teeth, and many of them remained anonymous.” says Thornton, who’s working on getting “thank you” cards to each donor. “They didn’t care about recognition. I think that speaks to the inherent good in people’s hearts. It’s completely selfless.”
Dr. Beverlee Cutler, the Billi Odegaard Clinic’s lead dentist, says that half of her job is replacing teeth or fitting patients for dentures.
“A lot of these people neglect their teeth for so long that it’s the best we can do for them,” says Cutler
Looking forward, Thornton says he has a new outlook on the generosity of Portland’s inhabitants. Admitting he’s grown a bit cynical with age, Thornton says he became OK with not trusting people anymore. Until now.
“I just figured I would lose all my teeth and that would be it,” says Thornton. “People don’t buy strangers teeth. But then, I guess, I’m not a stranger now.”