For more than 28 years, San Antonio Christian Dental Clinic (SACDC) has given millions of dollars worth of free dental care to impoverished, homeless, and disadvantaged adults in Bexar County. In 2008, however, the clinic decided to take a different, more proactive step toward affecting more measurable change in the San Antonio community.
“The clinic wanted to dream big,” said Gloria Canseco, the clinic’s executive director. “We wanted to extend Christ’s healing touch to encompass a larger mission: moving struggling Bexar County adults toward self-sufficiency.”
Thus began SACDC’s Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) Training Program.
An evolving product of SACDC’s board of directors with support from the Greehey Family Foundation, the current training program is aimed at underserved students, and provides accepted applicants with a 15-week-long course that fully prepares them for certification via the State of Texas Dental Assistant Course Exam.
Most importantly, SACDC provides this training completely free of charge; an equivalent private or university-based training program would cost around $15,000. In 2013, the Greehey Family Foundation’s support for the training program allowed it to fully eliminate all barriers, covering costs for books, vaccinations, uniforms, bus passes, tuition, certifications, and exams.
“The 2013 program was a huge success and illustrated the program’s potential going forward,” said Canseco. “As we nudge folks toward self-sufficiency, we are nurturing their confidence, developing a social conscience, awakening them to their potential, and ensuring that they are job-ready when they leave us.”
In its four years of operation, the program has trained 58 students. One of these students is Sherry Church, who joined the program in 2009.
“I have always had an inclination toward helping others in need,” she said. “I was so glad to be able to become a part (of the clinic).”
Alongside her fellow students, Church received classroom and hands-on instruction in privacy and regulations, tooth morphology, dentition, and sterilization techniques. For some of the more specialized subjects, such as radiology, the clinic reached out to interested San Antonio dentists, who took time out of their practice to provide professional instruction at the clinic on a volunteer basis.
“We have rigorous expectations for our students in their attendance and performance,” said Canseco.
Church agreed, “Some of the material was challenging ... becoming acquainted with radiology for the first time was especially complex.”
Students conduct supervised hands-on work with patients during their fifteen weeks, but it is after the course ends that the true, and truly rewarding, work begins.
“Each student is required to complete 96 hours in service to the clinic,” said Dr. David Rickey, SACDC’s dental service director.
During these hours, students put their training to good use, assisting volunteer dentists as they serve the clinic’s underserved adult patient constituency. In 2013, the clinic provided $3.4 million dollars worth of free dental services, conducting just over 62,000 procedures on nearly 8,000 patients.
Church used her required hours to fulfill her proclivity for philanthropy.
“I felt blessed,” she said. “Everyone I served was so grateful. I remember leaving the clinic every day tired, but very satisfied.”
The RDA Training Program marks a two-prong movement against homelessness and poverty in San Antonio. First, it takes disadvantaged community members, including an increasing number from Haven for Hope, and provides them with specialized education. Single mothers comprise 60 percent of students, while 20 percent of all students have experienced homelessness.
“This training is marketable anywhere in the country,” Rickey said. In this way, the program provides participants with the tools they need to be successful and independent.
But the students are not the program’s only beneficiaries. As the second prong, the students’ training and service hours help the clinic fulfill its promise of free dental care for low-income Bexar County adults. As Dr. Rickey explains, while volunteer dentists often offer their services at the clinic, volunteer dental assistants are much more difficult to come by.
“Trained dental assistants often work full-time in private practices,” he said. “Their duties extend beyond the dentist’s chair, so they don’t have much time to volunteer.” Graduates of SACDC’s training program provide the clinic with much-needed manpower, supporting the clinic’s volunteer staff of dentists by taking x-rays, ensuring patient comfort, and providing direct chairside assistance.
Today, Sherry Church is a fourth-year dental student at the Dental School at the University of Texas Heath Science Center. Recently married, Church plans to take her skills into the private sector. According to aftco.net, the national ratio of dentists to citizens in the United States currently rests at an average of 60 to 100,000. In Bexar County, the average ratio is 41 to 100,000, which dips down to 23 to 100,000 in the area around SACDC. Other sites in the country are entirely devoid of dentists, despite containing populations of more than 6,000 residents. Such areas are known as “dental deserts.” By lending her expertise in such areas, Church plans to help alleviate this dire situation.
But the dangers of dental disease extend far beyond the realm of dental health itself: according to Mayoclinic.com, diseases of the teeth and gums are repeatedly proven to have a close connection to serious general health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Despite this, dental health does not appear to be a major factor in how the city tracks San Antonians’ health. In addition, the SA2020 initiative does not include dental health in its plan for a healthier city. According to the SACDC, 41 percent of Bexar County adults do not have access to routine dental care. More recently, in the 2014 San Antonio Point in Time count, respondents indicated dental care as their most important need. This lack of access not only exposes these individuals to increased risk of devastating health conditions, but makes for a less healthy San Antonio. By creating dental professionals, the clinic is in a position to improve the overall health of our city, a position worthy of some close consideration.
The RDA training program itself continues to grow. Unique in the state of Texas, the program hopes to continue to train students while communicating their accomplishments, with the hope of inspiring other organizations to adopt their methods.
"The best success indicator is the students’ own accomplishments,” said Canseco. “And the best of these is our students’ certification pass rate: 100 percent passing on the first attempt.”
“The program gives our graduates confidence,” said Sarah Martinez, associate director of operations program manager. “Confidence to go out, get a good job, and get off government assistance.”
*Featured/top image: RDA Program graduate Eddie Acosta and two volunteer dentists on their way to see more patients. Photo by Paola Longoria.