Growth brings rewards for two dental student volunteers at CDA Cares

Between the two of them, Jesica Gonzalez and Walter Fuentes, both third-year dental students, have volunteered at 10 CDA Cares clinics. As the Bakersfield natives have progressed in school — Gonzalez at UCSF School of Dentistry and Fuentes at UCLA School of Dentistry — they and others have seen their capabilities evolve at the CDA Foundation’s biannual two-day clinic, which provides oral health care services at no charge to underserved communities.

“As a third-year dental student, my roles have kind of changed in comparison to when I started off volunteering with CDA Cares back in 2012,” says Gonzalez, who was a pre-dental student at California State University, Bakersfield when she volunteered at the Foundation’s inaugural clinic in Modesto. After hearing about CDA Cares, Gonzalez recruited friends and fellow students to join her for the three-hour drive to the clinic to help out. She says she spent most of her time escorting patients to different areas and helping them find where they needed to be, but “not really knowing so much the technicality behind the dentistry.”

Gonzalez had a very different experience last October at CDA Cares Bakersfield, assisting chairside in the restoration and extraction areas and understanding most of the dental procedures, as well as which instruments were needed for each procedure. “It’s a little more efficient for me now because I know where everything is and where it should be and in what order. The progression from 2012 to 2017 is very great, and it’s nice to be able to see that finish line because when I graduate in 2019 I’ll be able to give back like the dentists that are here.”

One such dentist is Gary Ackerman, DDS, another long-time CDA Cares volunteer. He met Gonzalez at the first clinic in Modesto and became her mentor and friend. “I’ve seen her grow immensely as a person and as a student,” says Ackerman, “I’m looking forward to seeing her in a couple years when she has graduated from UCSF.”

Upon graduation, Gonzalez says her current plan is to return to Bakersfield and serve the community with whom she’s lived most of her life. “It’s very underserved and I know there are a lot of dental professionals that are needed in the area, as well as patients who need care.”

(Gonzalez and Ackerman speak about their CDA Cares experience in a short video. Watch it below or on CDA’s YouTube channel.)

From translator to oral health education lead

When Walter Fuentes volunteered for the first time at CDA Cares on the heels of a Global Brigades trip to Ghana, it was as a Spanish-language translator and he was still deciding whether he wanted a career in dentistry. “It was my first exposure to the world of dentistry in the states, and I fell in love with the event,” he says. “It really helped me realize the need for dental care in California.”

Fuentes says every clinic he’s attended has offered inspirational moments, but at his first event in San Diego it was the hug he received from a patient who was overjoyed at having her front tooth restored (by a volunteer dentist) that made him realize how gratifying dentistry can be as a career. A couple of volunteer stints as a chairside assistant followed, during which time Fuentes met CDA Cares volunteer Lindsey Robinson, DDS. She then introduced him to CDA Foundation staff, who helped him become part of the CDA Cares Bakersfield Local Arrangements Committee and gave him his next volunteer role. He would be the lead for the clinic’s oral health education department.

“Many volunteer dentists have offered their mentorship and help to me,” says Fuentes, who was excited to learn about his next assignment. “Patient education is among the most important aspects of dentistry because through education we can give our patients the proper tools to take care of their own oral hygiene.” As the oral health education lead, Fuentes worked with a group of volunteers to provide patients with information on how to brush their teeth, floss and maintain their oral health. “We tried to make the sessions interactive by making sure we quizzed the audience periodically. It was amazing to see how some of the patients really appreciated what they learned.”

As a dental student, Fuentes has promoted the event among his classmates, explaining to them how CDA Cares was a life-changing event for both the patients and volunteers and even offering to drive volunteers to the events.

He also helped organize visits to the Bakersfield clinic by local school district leaders, spurred in part by his interest in working with the pediatric population after he graduates. “I thought that by bringing in these school district leaders, we could show them the need for dentistry in our community and hopefully gain their support in our endeavors to improve oral health for children in our state,” he says.

In addition to providing fillings, extractions, cleanings and other oral health care services at no charge to those in need, CDA Cares educates the public and policymakers about the importance of good oral health and the need for a well-functioning Denti-Cal program. Last October at CDA Cares Bakersfield — the Foundation’s 12th clinic — volunteer dentists and dental professionals provided more than $1.25 million in care to 1,506 people.

“Many people lack proper oral health education and are unaware of their dental health status,” Gonzalez says. “Some don't even consider it a priority unless they are in pain, but by then it may be too late. Events like these provide much-needed awareness to communities.”

The next CDA Cares clinic takes place April 27-28 in Anaheim at the Anaheim Convention Center. The Foundation encourages dentists, including oral surgeons and pedodontists, to register to volunteer in advance online to help ensure they receive their first-choice placement.

If their busy school schedules permit it, Jesica Gonzalez and Walter Fuentes will be there.

Register to volunteer at the upcoming Anaheim clinic and find a volunteer FAQ.

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For Daniel Ramirez, DDS, personally encountering barriers to care in his early years ignited a passion for health care and an appreciation for the importance of diversity within the field. Dr. Ramirez, recipient of the CDA Foundation’s 2017 Student Loan Repayment Grant, grew up with two siblings and a disabled mother whose income was more than 500 percent below the poverty level. But he says he now embraces this adversity.

The Oct. 6-7 CDA Cares event in Bakersfield marked the CDA Foundation’s 12th successful volunteer dental clinic — providing more than $1.25 million in care to 1,506 people over two days at the Kern County Fairgrounds. In addition to providing oral health care services at no charge to those in need, CDA Cares educates the public and policymakers about the importance of good oral health and the need for a well-functioning Denti-Cal program.