CDA Cares set to return to Modesto, site of first clinic

Longtime volunteers reflect on then and now

After six years and 13 clinics, CDA Cares, the volunteer-run dental program hosted by the CDA Foundation, is preparing for a return to Modesto, Calif. — site of the inaugural clinic in 2012. And while every CDA Cares can be considered successful in terms of the number of patients served — 1,950 on average — and the number of no-cost dental services provided, longtime volunteers say a lot has changed since the first clinic took shape in the Central Valley city.

“The first event in Modesto was fairly well-organized, but each one got progressively better,” said Stephen Abbott, DDS, who practices in Chico, Calif., and has volunteered at every clinic to date. “Over the years, CDA Cares has become very good at getting patients in the door and where they need to be,” he said.

Event planners recognized opportunities for improvement in the clinic’s infancy and implemented changes in successive clinics. For example, the prescreening process was introduced to ensure that those patients who cannot be seen the first day of the clinic can “return the next day and get right in,” Dr. Abbott said. Prescreening has also generally helped to alleviate stress and confusion among patients, particularly as the lines, which begin to form outside the clinic before dawn, quickly grow long.

Elizabeth Demichelis, DDS, served as vice chair of the first Modesto clinic and is now the local arrangements committee chair for the upcoming October clinic. She echoed Abbott’s view on the program’s evolution, saying, “Since CDA Cares originated, the efficiency of how we function has continued to improve.”

Dr. Demichelis was part of a group who developed CDA Cares from the ground up. In fall 2011, she joined a second observational trip to a Mission of Mercy dental clinic in Oregon to get a better glimpse of the task ahead. “Oregon had been doing these clinics for a long time and had them down to a science, so that’s where we went and learned,” she said.

With that first Cares event scheduled for the following May, there was little time for the core team to put what they learned into practice. Demichelis called it a “massive” project — and one accomplished without the leadership structure that’s now in place. But they prevailed. “Once I saw the number of people at that first event in Modesto and realized the impact we were making and how all of us — fellow dentists, dental team members and the community — were changing lives, I was hooked,” said Demichelis, who has not yet missed a day at any CDA Cares.

“Setting up, providing care and breaking down a venue that planned to serve some 2,000 patients in just two days is no small feat,” said 12-time CDA Cares volunteer John Muller, DDS. “Doing it the first time was monumental.”

Now, the events benefit from the engagement of local component and community members through participation in the local arrangements committee. As chair of that committee for Modesto, Demichelis says she put together a “dream team” of local dentists who have previous CDA Cares experience as well as local leaders who can assist with business and community outreach. Early this year, the team began the work of securing funding, equipment and volunteers and handling other logistics. “Our team is small but strategic and effective,” she said.

Volunteer roles have also become more defined and one clinic section was created based on observed need.

“We didn’t have an organized endodontics section at that first clinic,” said Abbott. “So, myself and several other individuals lobbied to help put together an endo section, run today by Dr. Kevin Keating. It’s really nice to be able to save teeth that otherwise would have to be removed.”

Educating local policymakers 

Besides using past experience to improve the patient and volunteer experience, Demichelis said the events have evolved to prioritize advocacy. “We use venues throughout the state to educate local decision-makers about the need for good policy,” she said.

Due in large part to CDA Cares advocacy efforts, the state in 2017 fully restored adult Denti-Cal benefits after years of eliminated, then partially restored, benefits. CDA and the Foundation view the benefit restoration as a positive step for the Denti-Cal program, but acknowledge that some time is needed before the full effectiveness of the restoration is visible. Furthermore, the clinics still serve as a “safety net” for many individuals who need relief from pain and infection resulting from untreated dental disease. To shine a light on this need, ahead of each clinic, CDA Public Affairs arranges tours for local policymakers.

The imperative to spotlight this need throughout the state is in part why CDA Cares does not typically revisit clinic locations, although Sacramento has twice hosted the event. In fact, the term “CDA Cares groupie,” embraced by many long-term volunteers, grew out of this endeavor. “We wanted to create the enthusiasm that is found when people travel to various venues to see their favorite artists over and over again,” Demichelis said, thus the name of the city is printed on the T-shirts worn by volunteers at each event.

“When we did the first clinic, we knew there was no guarantee that it would return, because although our need is great in this area, we also understood that at that time adult Denti-Cal had been cut from the budget and so many people throughout the state were facing higher barriers to care,” Demichelis said.

But other factors are considered in location selection, including venue capacity. Because Modesto still has an unmet need for dental care and has the facilities to support an event the size of CDA Cares, the largely agricultural city of about 210,000 residents will again host the clinic.

A ‘work of the heart’

“Over the years, people have excitedly asked me, ‘When is CDA Cares coming back?’ So it’s been very exciting to be able to say, ‘It’s coming back this October!’” Demichelis said. “And this time, we’ll do it even bigger and better.”

Despite the changes in organization and efficiency over the years, one thing hasn’t changed: the commitment of the volunteers — this “work of the heart,” as Demichelis called it.
Abbott plans to continue volunteering after he retires. “I just love doing this. The patients are fantastic and very appreciative. The days may be exhausting, but they’re rewarding. When I left the Anaheim clinic in April for the eight-hour drive back to Chico, I only remember how good I felt, having made a difference in people’s lives.”

“For the majority of us, dentistry has provided us with our livelihood. Volunteering our personal time twice a year seems so easy to do,” Dr. Muller said. “The work is hard but the reward is always the same: We get back far more than we give.”

Learn more about CDA Cares or register to volunteer for the Oct. 26-27 clinic in Modesto at cdafoundation.org/modesto.