Dientes celebrates two decades of nonprofit dentistry
Since its inception, Dientes Community Dental Care has focused on reaching underserved populations. At first, when the nonprofit was founded by a small group of private dentists in 1992, that population was HIV-infected patients who, because they were shunned from dental insurance plans, had nowhere else to turn for dental care.
Back then, the center consisted of a five-chair clinic on Mission Street, a part-time clinic at Allianza School in Watsonville, and one day a week of care at a private office in Ben Lomond.
Now, the nonprofit operates out of a clinic on Commercial Way in Santa Cruz, with 10 seats, state-of-the-art equipment, and a fully bilingual staff. It’s open six days a week to assist patients—96 percent of whom live at or below the poverty level.
The organization will be celebrating its anniversary with an event, “Dientes Sea of Smiles 20th Anniversary,” at Chaminade from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 18.
Dientes employs a team of pro-bono dental professionals—including general dentists, licensed specialists, hygienists, and registered dental assistants—to work on patients who cannot afford regular medical bills for their procedures. The dentists’ list of services includes everything from x-rays and fillings to root canals.
In the last 10 years alone, the dentists at the facility have donated countless hours and more than $61 million worth of care, reports Laura Marcus, Dientes’ executive director.
“We are one of only two providers in the county providing sliding-scale fees for low-income people … as well as the only Federally Qualified Health Center dedicated purely to dentistry,” says Marcus. “We currently operate at full capacity at 20,000 annual visits.”
Marcus says that Dientes understands the need for high-quality dental care, regardless of patients’ ability to pay. “Everyone deserves the dignity of a healthy smile, regardless of whether they have low-incomes, no income, no insurance or are on public insurance,” she says.
Mike Egense, a Santa Cruz resident and long-time patient of Dientes, has received numerous treatments from more than five practitioners at the facility.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” he states in reference to having seen multiple doctors. Egense was raised in a privileged family, he says. But after losing his job of 21 years and being diagnosed with cancer, he found himself in a once-unlikely position of great need. “I had lost faith in the medical community,” he says. “But when I needed something, [Dientes] didn’t hesitate, they didn’t classify me, they just took me in with a smile. It’s been about two years now, and that hasn’t changed.”
Another patient, Lynne Quihuiz, says she received a similar level of courtesy during her visits. “They treat you with total respect, no matter what is going on,” she says. “It’s really a gift to the community that you can still get your teeth done without having to break the bank.”
Marcus says that Dientes tries to keep their uninsured patients’ bills as low as possible, and that they currently aim to cover about half the cost of each treatment themselves. She reports that help from outside organizations—such as Webster Family Foundation and Solari Charitable Trust—has helped Dientes to offset these costs, but that more aid is always needed.
“We’ve had some really good opportunities come up, and we can’t let them pass by,” says Marcus. Dientes was recently awarded a state grant to expand their current facility, which Marcus says will enable them to “become a more fully self-sustainable organization through providing more visits and increasing earned income.”
The center plans on using the funds to add a pediatric wing onto the facility, which will “increase efficiency and expand the scope and quantity of services.” By utilizing existing providers in the expanded facility, Marcus says that Dientes can anticipate providing a minimum 4,000 additional visits per year to 1,500 new patients. Relocating children’s services to the new wing, she says, will also provide room for more adult visits in the existing clinic, allowing the facility to serve a larger population of uninsured adults.
One of Dientes’ main goals, says Marcus, is to make dental care more sustainable, affordable, and accessible to those who need it, which she thinks could come from focusing more energy on prevention.
“Good oral health is the cornerstone of overall health,” she states. “A healthy smile makes a huge impression and it can mean the difference between securing a job or remaining unemployed. A child suffering debilitating tooth pain can’t concentrate in school.”
Marcus says that, while Dientes is already successful at building relationships with its patients, it is looking to forge more community connections. “Our role here is twofold: to provide services and to act in an advocacy capacity,” she says. “With tens of thousands of people who have needs, we can’t do it alone.”
Dientes Sea of Smiles 20th Anniversary event will take place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 18 at Chaminade, 1 Chaminade Lane, Santa Cruz. Learn more at http://dientes.org
Photos: Keana Parker