Star Magazine

The Conversation: Seton Center’s dental clinic, food pantry work warms Sister Loretto Marie Colwell’s heart

Sister Loretto Marie Colwell with the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth is executive director of Seton Center.
Sister Loretto Marie Colwell with the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth is executive director of Seton Center. The Kansas City Star

Sister Loretto Marie Colwell, Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, is executive director of the Seton Center, a 45-year-old social services center at 2816 E. 23rd St., 816-581-4758, Colwell was born and raised in Kansas City and attended Bishop Hogan High School and University of St. Mary in Leavenworth. Following her novitiate, she worked in health care for 45 years in Denver; Santa Monica, Calif.; Butte, Mont.; and Topeka. This conversation took place on a walking tour of the center’s dental clinic and food pantry.

Who can come to the dental clinic?

Anyone. We have people who come here who have insurance. If someone has financial strain, we go by what they are capable of paying.

We take care of the kids from the juvenile detention center and the county prisoners.

We also take care of four schools, from preschool through eighth grade, and if they go to Cristo Rey High School, we have them until they are in the 12th grade.

If the school has a van, they bring the kids eight or 10 at a time, and if they don’t have a van, we go and get them in a van.

And the parents have to come in for a one-hour program about how to take care of their children’s teeth. I honestly believe we are changing generational behavior. Because when the children come the first time, they have three or four cavities, but when they come the following year, they don’t have any.

Also, every Friday we bring five people from ReStart to the clinic. Recently we made dentures for a 24-year-old woman who had a job offer on condition that she get her teeth repaired. She now works full-time and has an apartment with her child.

Why was that a condition of employment?

You would be surprised how many employers don’t want to hire someone with missing teeth, even as a housekeeper.

This is your food pantry.

Everything is spotlessly clean. Yes, I’m a bit of a fanatic about cleanliness.

How many people do you feed each month?

More than 800 families. Each family can come once a month, and if they are good about how they handle the food, it will last them three weeks, and their food stamps can cover the rest.

Over here is a new area. You cannot buy soap, deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo or toilet paper with food stamps, so we give people a hygiene kit along with the food.

What is your answer to people who say the population you serve is just looking for handouts?

When people tell me that, I give them examples from real life.

One year, we were on the Plaza and a gentleman was holding a sign asking for money. Sister Mary Madeleine and I decided to give him some money. Normally we would only give a dollar or two but it was the night before Thanksgiving, so we gave him a 20.

He accepted the bill and thanked us, then almost immediately came running back and said, “I don’t think you realize you handed me a 20.”

This idea that people are just out to take is not what we see. No one wants to come here.

A man in his 30s was here about three months ago. He said: “I got laid off two months ago. I’m out every day looking for work, and I’m going to find a job. But I’m a single parent with a 7-year-old son, and we are down to half a jar of peanut butter.”

So Sister Mary Madeleine prepared him some bags, and he said: “I don’t expect to come back. I expect to have a job next month.” But when Sister handed him the bags, he burst into tears.

Another time a dental tech overheard a 5-year-old ask his grandma as they were leaving the clinic, “Grandma, do you think we’ll get something to eat today?”

And she said, “Honey, I don’t think so today, but I’m sure going to try to find something tomorrow.” The tech told us, so we stopped her, and she told us she had five grandchildren that had been placed suddenly in her care, and she didn’t have any food in the house.

We filled up a cart with food and gave it to her, and the little boy said, “Can I please eat now, Grandma?”

Those are the things we see, and it warms my heart to be center of hope for the people that come here.

To reach Cindy Hoedel, call 816-234-4304 or send email to Follow her on Twitter @CindyHoedel, and on Facebook.