.Dientes Community Dental Care Celebrates 30 Years

The Santa Cruz Gives nonprofit provides cleanings for families who cannot afford dental care—plus five other health and wellness organizations

Laura Marcus admits that she’s not very good at keeping her opinions to herself. 

Around three years ago, the CEO of Dientes Community Dental Care was handpicked by then-Santa Cruz County Supervisor John Leopold to lead a community meeting regarding a 3.6-acre plot of land on Capitola Road.

“People were like, ‘We want a coffee shop.’ There’s already a coffee shop. ‘We want a market.’ There’s already a market,” Marcus says. “I thought, ‘What could we do here that could have a real impact in the community?’”

That thought served as the kernel for a state-of-the-art health and housing campus at 1500 Capitola Road, where locals celebrated the first of two ribbon cuttings on Nov. 19. With Marcus holding one side of the giant ceremonial scissors and Santa Cruz Community Health (SCCH) CEO Leslie Conner the other, the pair chopped through the oversized ribbon as the large crowd cheered.

As the tag-teamed scissor chop might suggest, the health and housing campus is a partnership between Dientes and SCCH. On one side of the campus is a 20,000-square-foot, two-story facility that provides medical, behavioral health and specialty care with a focus on pediatrics run by SCCH. On the other side of the campus, Dientes runs an 11-chair clinic where it will provide comprehensive dental care to low-income patients of all ages.

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Next fall, the 57 low-income housing units being constructed by nonprofit developer MidPen Housing will be completed and filled.

As music blares in the background from a live band hired for the event during an interview a few moments after posing for photos and shaking dozens of hands, Marcus calls the day a “surreal moment” for all those involved in the project over the past three years.

“We keep laughing and saying, ‘The hard part is over, and now the hard part starts,’” she says.

Filling a Need

According to the state’s Health Places Index (HPI), many of the neighborhoods in Mid-County are considered to be among the healthiest places to live. The HPI, a product of the Public Health Alliance of Southern California, determines a community’s health rating by measuring various social conditions that impact a person’s health such as education, job opportunities and clean air and water.

But as the cost of living exponentially rises and wages and employment opportunities for lower-income residents stay stagnant, not everyone in Mid-County is managing to make ends meet. Around 15% of Live Oak Elementary School students are considered homeless, about 15,000 area residents do not have a doctor and roughly 74% of adults in Live Oak don’t have access to affordable dental care.

Marcus says that the new Dientes facility will serve around 6,000 low-income patients a year. Around 3,000 of those patients, Marcus says, currently receive services at Dientes’ 1830 Commercial Way location, about two miles from the new spot on the other side of Highway 1.

“This [new location] really brings it into the neighborhood where people live,” Marcus says. “Some of our patients are going to be able to walk to this location, and that’s huge for them.”

Although securing transportation might not be a deterrent for some county residents, it could be the difference between making or missing an appointment for the low-income residents Dientes serves, Marcus says. That is why the new campus is revolutionary: It brings services closer to the residents’ doorstep. Along with the health care services provided by Dientes and SCCH, Watsonville Law Center will have an immigration lawyer working on campus and MidPen will provide various services as well.

“The people that are living here are getting the wrap-around services they need. This is the way of the future in my mind,” Marcus says. “Santa Cruz is desperate for housing, so why don’t we continue to do these partnerships where we’re offering more than just housing and create a community hub?”

The 1500 Capitola Road location won’t be the last time Dientes and SCCH team up on a project. The two are working with the City of Santa Cruz on a smaller but similar development downtown. Dubbed Pacific Station South, the seven-story, mixed-use building will provide 70 affordable housing units and medical office space for both providers when it’s completed in 2024.

SCCH’s Conner says the two housing projects are a step in the right direction, but stresses that the county, which was ranked the second-most expensive rental market in the nation earlier this year, “probably needs another thousand” units to make a significant impact.

“It’s hard, but it can be done. And it can be done in a beautiful way, and we need to do it,” Conner says. “As a community, sometimes we’re going to have to sacrifice so that there aren’t people living on the streets.”

Decades of Service

This is the 30th year that Dientes has provided services in Santa Cruz County. Marcus has been with the nonprofit for half of them, spending four years as associate director around the turn of the century before taking over the top spot upon her return in 2011.

In that time, Dientes has grown from 26 employees and a $2.5 million budget to 120 employees and a $15 million budget. 

Along with its Commercial Way and Capitola Road clinics, it also has locations in the Beach Flats neighborhood and in Watsonville and hosts an outreach reach clinic at the Housing Matters campus on Coral Street. It also conducts outreach days at local schools and skilled nursing facilities, providing cleanings for families who cannot afford dental care.

With the addition of the new clinic, Dientes will now serve 18,000 patients a year, 97% of whom live at or below the poverty level.

“We’ve done a lot of good over the past decade, and we’ve got so much more to do,” Marcus says.

In the coming years, Dientes will not only open up the aforementioned clinic in Downtown Santa Cruz, but also add five chairs to its Watsonville clinic, bringing the total number of chairs at that location to 11.

Marcus says that the organization’s steady rise is a product of its hard-working staff, and its wide web of donors who have slowly but surely bought into the idea that good oral health can positively impact a person’s life in several ways, from giving them the confidence to smile wide during a job interview or addressing bothersome, painful issues with their gums and teeth.

Dientes is one of 63 nonprofits participating in this year’s Santa Cruz Gives, the holiday giving drive helping Santa Cruz County organizations. Their Gives project this year is providing “Healthy Smiles for All,” which would allocate funds to ensure “that cost, insurance, income, race, language and transportation do not prevent people from visiting the dentist.”

“We feel like we’re adding value to the rest of the services that are offered in the community. I think people get excited about that idea,” she says. “They’re like, ‘Oh, yeah. I see the value in a healthy smile.’”

Here are five other nonprofits operating in the health and wellness sector that are participating in Santa Cruz Gives:

Encompass Community Services

The largest provider of health and human services in Santa Cruz County, Encompass’ Gives project is the construction of a state-of-the-art behavioral health center in Watsonville. The Sí Se Puede Behavioral Health Center will provide personalized, bilingual substance use and mental health treatment to more than 1,300 people a year.

The center will help the organization build on its 30-year history of serving the Watsonville community through bilingual programming that is led by Latinos with lived experience with substance abuse disorders. 

Planned Parenthood Mar Monte

Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this year declared California a Reproductive Freedom State, and a safe haven to all who seek abortion care. People are already traveling thousands of miles for care at Planned Parenthood health centers throughout the state.

Planned Parenthood Mar Monte’s Gives project—called “A Safe Haven for All”—is to respond to an additional 250-500 abortion patients every week throughout its local affiliates as more and more states deny their residents the right to abortion services. 

Families In Transition

The project this countywide nonprofit hopes to fund through Santa Cruz Gives will help local families restore their credit scores to give them a better opportunity at snagging one of the forthcoming affordable and low-income housing units currently under construction across the county.

Center for Farmworker Families

A nonprofit dedicated to helping the area’s impoverished farmworkers survive on the expensive Central Coast, the Center for Farmworker Families’ (CFF) project is called “Comida, Cobijas y Cariño” (Food, Blankets and Care), a new program that invites 20-30 members of their farmworker families to participate in a monthly small-scale distribution where they will not only receive food, but home goods such as blankets and bedding, cookware and personal health items such as toiletries.

At these events, CFF partners with other nonprofits such as the Community Action Board Santa Cruz County and La Manzana to educate farmworkers about services available to them. A representative from each farmworker family will be invited to participate in the distribution just 1-2 times yearly.

Community Bridges

In Santa Cruz County, 56% of residents age 5 and older do not speak English very well or at all, according to the Census Bureau. Community Bridges’ project for this year’s Santa Cruz Gives, called “Let’s Learn English Together!,” seeks to address this.

This initiative will teach non-English speaking parents during the day to speak English, and help pay for childcare for young children while their older children are in school. This will allow them to guide their children with schoolwork.

In Santa Cruz County, the poverty rate among those who worked full-time for the past 12 months was 3%. Among those working part-time, it was 16% and for those who did not work, it was 19%.

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Tony Nuñez
Tony Nuñez is a longtime member of the Watsonville community who served as Sports Editor of The Pajaronian for five years and three years as Managing Editor. He is a Watsonville High, Cabrillo College and San Jose State University alumnus.
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