Bringing back his smile

Eric Kent has volunteered at the South Carolina Aquarium for 16 years and given more than 3,100 hours of service. Kent rides the bus from his Summerville home to the Aquarium.

Eric Kent doesn’t own a car so he takes the bus from Summerville every Thursday morning to volunteer for a half day at the South Carolina Aquarium.

He’s been volunteering there for nearly 16 years since the Aquarium first opened in 2000.

“I’ve always loved oceans and wildlife,” the 39-year-old native Upstate New Yorker said.

He leads tours and walks around the Aquarium answering questions. Kent’s favorite exhibit is the salt marsh room on the third floor, which is meant to mimic a kayak ride along a local tidal creek.

“I’m also a reptile handler,” he said. “I’m one of the ones that carries around the snakes and lets people interact with them.”

Aquarium staff estimate that Kent, who also works part-time at Kohl’s in Summerville, has logged more than 3,100 volunteer hours over the years.

“He sets the bar,” said Paul Nunez, the Aquarium’s human resources director.

And all this is just to say that Nunez, and his colleague Charmaine Wozniak, recently decided that they wanted to help bring Kent’s smile back.

After a decade of dental neglect, most of Kent’s decayed teeth are falling out. But he has no dental insurance, and no easy way to find — or drive himself to — a dentist.

Wozniak, the Aquarium’s volunteer services manager, arranged a free consultation for Kent at Gentle Family Dentistry in Mount Pleasant. Nunez drove him there.

“We wanted to do something great for Eric because he’s always ... been there for us,” Nunez said. “We wanted to return the favor and do something good for him.”

Kent isn’t the only South Carolina adult guilty of neglecting his teeth. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that less than 60 percent of adults in this state have seen a dentist in the past year.

But for Kent, one year turned into 10.

Dr. Greg Bottone determined Kent’s mouth requires a complete overhaul: a combination of extractions, implants and dentures, which will cost an estimated $50,000.

Gentle Family Dentistry is donating the work for free. Shelbourne and Associates, a Charleston oral surgery practice, has also agreed to donate their services.

“Dr. Shelbourne is helping us give Eric the Cadillac of care that will last him a lifetime,” Bottone said. “I can’t wait to see Eric smile. We’ll have to have a party.”

Wozniak recently launched a Go Fund Me page to offset the cost of the work that the dentist and oral surgeon are donating. Dozens of strangers and friends have already donated more than $7,000 to Kent’s cause.

“She started it a week ago and it blew up,” Kent said during a recent interview.

Meanwhile, the dental work is ongoing. Bottone has already extracted some of Kent’s teeth. Dr. Shelbourne will remove the remaining teeth and place four new implants on the top and four on the bottom.

In the meantime, Kent keeps volunteering every Thursday. Only once in 16 years has he considered applying for a paid job at the Aquarium. He said working there for money would probably take the joy out of it.

“I’m really grateful for the Aquarium,” he said.

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.