Student loan recipients give back at CDA Cares

Every year, the CDA Foundation awards one new dentist with the Student Loan Repayment Grant to help repay his or her dental educational loan. The grant, which provides up to $105,000 over three years in exchange for a commitment to care for the underserved, has not only provided financial support for 16 dentists across the state, it has motivated them to give back to their communities.

Three recipients of the grant illustrated this by using their talents to give back to patients at CDA Cares in Fresno. Mao Her-Flores, DDS, was the first recipient of the Student Loan Repayment Grant in 2002 when she worked for the United Health Centers of San Joaquin Valley, which serves the Fresno area. She worked there for six years and now treats underserved patients at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Central California Health Care System providing general dentistry for veterans. She also teaches dentistry to general practice residents.

After she saw CDA Cares was coming to Fresno in October, she knew she had to sign up to volunteer.

"It's something that I have been interested in after hearing about it last year and I couldn't wait to do it this year," Her-Flores said.

Her-Flores provided fillings, worked in dental triage and did some interpreting as well during the two-day clinic, which provided $1.9 million in charitable dental services to 2,099 people at the Fresno Convention Center on Oct. 2-3. In addition to providing dental services at no charge to Californians who experience barriers to care, CDA Cares educates the public and policymakers about the importance of good oral health and the need for an adequately funded dental safety net, which includes a well-functioning Denti-Cal program.

Her-Flores found the experience to be rewarding.

"I'm just overwhelmed by the support of our dentists within our component, and also throughout the state, who have come here. I think it's just wonderful to know that we all care about our patients, and especially patients who don't normally have access. It's wonderful," Her-Flores said.

Many of the general practice residents she teaches at the VA in Fresno ask her about the CDA Foundation's Student Loan Repayment Grant Program. One of those students was the 2015 grant recipient, Sonia Relingo, DDS. Relingo had heard about the Student Loan Repayment Grant through the CDA Foundation and she spent a lot of time talking about it with Her-Flores and what it is like to work in a community health center. She decided to apply and was selected as the 2015 recipient.

"My entire desire for dentistry has been molded by the fact that I would love to provide community dentistry and care for the underserved and a grant like this will allow me to work with that population," Relingo said. "There's not a lot of financial incentives sometimes for providers to work in those rural clinics just because of repayment, but this award will definitely allow me to continue to provide access to dental services for underserved populations."

Relingo graduated from Howard University College of Dentistry in Washington, D.C., in 2013 and followed with a two-year general practice residency at Community Regional Medical Center. She currently is licensed to practice in California and employed at United Health Center in Mendota (Fresno County), providing full-time care. Born and raised in Orosi, California, she grew up in the second poorest county in the state and attended a high school with an academic performance index of 1. Despite these challenges, she graduated valedictorian of her high school class and went on to attend college at UC Berkeley where she became a first-generation graduate. Relingo was chosen as this year's recipient in part because of her ability to understand cultural diversity and she demonstrates this with each of her patients. She is passionate about promoting oral health education and has made it her personal goal to give back as a public health dentist by providing quality dental care to the underserved for the duration of her career.

Relingo worked in the dental triage area of CDA Cares Fresno, where she helped route patients to the appropriate treatment areas.

"At CDA Cares, I've been able to work with a lot of patients who don't have consistent access to dental care, very similar to the populations that we both [she and Her-Flores] work with," Relingo said.

Her-Flores and Relingo weren't the only two recipients of the Student Loan Repayment Grant volunteering their time at CDA Cares Fresno. Adriana Ustarez-Oji, DDS, was the 2011 recipient of the grant and currently serves as a clinical director of dental services with Family HealthCare Network at the Woodlake clinic. Ustarez-Oji, who also was a general practice resident under Her-Flores, is a 2009 UCSF School of Dentistry graduate. As an undergraduate, Ustarez-Oji served as a program manager to help develop the Escalera Youth Program, an inner-city program for East Los Angeles High School students, and during her residency, she served on panels and participated in workshops for underprivileged youth. In dental school, she held leadership positions with the Hispanic Dental Association, American Dental Education Association and Student National Dental Association.

Her passion for community health led her to CDA Cares to give back to the underserved and the CDA Foundation.

"It was important to come to this event because I felt that a lot of opportunities were given to me, the CDA Foundation did so much for me, I still have that passion to give back to my community, to the community of the central valley, where I work, where I live," Ustarez-Oji said.

The three dentists continue to make an impact in their communities and found the CDA Cares experience rewarding. Her-Flores continues to be a staunch supporter of the CDA Foundation and credits her interactions with the organization as a driving force for where she is today.

"The Foundation has been a pivotal force in my life and that's where I am today because of where it led me out to the community health clinics, and I learned that my passion in life is to do dentistry and to do dentistry for underserved populations," Her-Flores said.

For more information on the Student Loan Repayment Grant and CDA Cares, visit cdafoundation.org.  

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