For 10 years, Heartland Alliance’s Oral Health Forum has been dedicated to improving the dental health of low-income Chicagoans. Led by Alejandra Valencia, a dentist with national and international experience serving those hardest to reach, the program has gone on to be recognized as one of the best in the country.
What got you into this work?
Since I was a dental student back in Medellin, Columbia, my passion to serve low-income population flourished. After graduating from school, I was graced with the opportunity to work in remote areas of Colombia – serving rural populations, indigenous tribes, and communities that otherwise would not have access to dental treatment.
Upon arriving to the United States, my devotion to align my work related to heath equity and social justice led me to pursue a career in public health. Specializing in dental public health has leveraged my capacity to see the community as my patient instead of the one-to-one approach traditionally used in clinical practice. It has opened an entirely new perspective on how to serve populations in need of access to care.
Your program deals with both policy and direct service, could you explain in your own words why this is the case?
OHF’s initial and current initiative is to promote systems level change to advance oral health outcomes for underserved communities in Chicago. This approach includes collecting and analyzing oral health data, mapping socioeconomic inequalities, promoting health education and prevention, and fostering network collaboration to address population needs.
As the rate of oral disease continued to grow among children in low-income communities, OHF was petitioned by stakeholders to create and implement and intervention model that addressed the multifaceted barriers that prevent families from accessing oral health care and establishing lifelong behavioral changes which promote optimal oral health habits. As a result, OHF developed its Case Management Intervention pilot project; a holistic case management model which offers oral health education, dental screening, and case management services yearly to children in Chicago public schools living with oral disease.
Was there a moment where you KNEW you were in a job that was right for you
The first time I had the opportunity to get involved with the Oral Health Forum was during my residency in 2009. OHF created opportunities for me to contribute in completing the oral health needs assessment of Humboldt Park as part of my internship. This fulfilling experience helped me realize my passion for community outreach and realizing that working at OHF would be the right place to be.
I began working for OHF once securing a Residency in Dental Public Health in 2010. I did not apply for any other organization besides the Forum. Six months passed before I had the opportunity to start working in OHF hourly as research assistance in January of 2011. The journey with OHF to this day has been amazing, as my work has helped me to develop not only professionally but helping me to become a leader who searches to materialize new dreams of serving underserved communities in my own capacity.