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Karissa Moreno’s work during her first few months as the executive director of the Northern California Center for Well-Being in Santa Rosa was dedicated to many community health projects like diabetes and exercise classes.

Now her team is focused on a new effort to improve oral health care through dental health education in the lower-income neighborhoods in Sonoma County. During the first two years, Moreno expects to help over 2,000 people across the county through the Dental Wellbeing Collaborative.

The program is being supported by a $100,000 donation from Dr. John Duffy, a retired Sonoma County periodontist who developed a technique for preventing gum disease while doing volunteer dental work with poor communities in the United States and Latin America.

The dental collaborative plans to use a combined approach of community outreach and teaching people self-care skills to implement in households that may not have easy access to health care.

“Oral health is critical to overall well-being,” Duffy said in a statement when the program was launched last month. “Unfortunately, there are significant oral health disparities in Sonoma County today.”

The needs are great, Moreno said, with over 50 percent of the county’s kindergarten students having tooth decay. And nearly a quarter of those students have not been treated, according to a three-year county study published in 2014. Nationally, a 2018 Harvard University Health Services study found that individuals with gum disease have two to three times the risk of having heart disease, and mothers with gum disease have increased risk of delivering low birthweight babies.

“There are a lot of oral disparities within our impoverished communities,” Moreno said. “The trajectory of a child who gets their baby teeth pulled out leads to a whole domino effect of oral health issues as they grow older.”

Infections can get so bad that often parents will have to take their children to the emergency room to get immediate dental treatment, Moreno said.

To gain trust of people in the communities targeted, many of whom Moreno said may be undocumented or fear medical institutions, the dental collaborataive will deploy teams of community health workers, or Promotoras de Salud, into known low-income neighborhoods.

These trained community leaders will engage residents and give them tools to reach wellness goals they might not have thought were previously necessary, she said.

Susan Garcia, the local well-being center’s community health worker coordinator who is leading the outreach project, said parents she works with tend to overlook the importance of baby teeth and healthy snacks.

She tries to relate to them by using examples from their everyday life.

“I say think about their baby teeth as the foundation of a house,” Garcia said. “To get a strong house you need a strong foundation.”

Garcia hopes that by showing parents how to brush their children’s teeth and giving them further education on oral health care, they themselves will be empowered to tell their neighbor, creating a ripple effect.

“The program is really about peer-to-peer education with a lot of the community health workers coming from the community themselves, like me,” Garcia said. “It’s all friends and neighbors and we are able to train on this info and then go back into our own neighborhoods with that knowledge and others.”

Some of the places where the community health workers will interact with their neighbors as part of the dental health education effort will be grocery stores in southwest Santa Rosa, affordable housing complexes, farmers markets and churches, Moreno said.

Moreno recognizes the health care system can be difficult to navigate, no matter a person’s background, so the center’s new oral health care program aims to alleviate some of the challenges, she said.

“To have someone who goes to the stores you go to and is seen in the community as a trusted ally is most important and will have the greatest impact,” Moreno said. “Having the partnerships we have to help get people excited about their (dental) care is really important.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.

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