Fort Worth, TX,
10:21 AM

Breaking Barriers for Brighter Smiles

By Ashley Antle

A child’s smile holds enormous potential for fostering emotional well-being, communicating happiness and building connections with others. It can also be a powerful indicator of physical health.

“There is a clear connection between oral health and overall mental and physical health,” said Tonya K. Fuqua, DDS, director of oral health for the Center for Community Health, led by Cook Children’s. “Teeth can be very telling about what is going on in a child’s life, the socioeconomic barriers they face and underlying health issues they may have. That’s why it’s so important for the dental health of children to be as high a priority as their physical health.”

Connecting the dots between oral and physical health to improve a child’s overall wellness is the purpose of a grant awarded by the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) Foundation to Cook Children’s Health Care System’s Renaissance Neighborhood Health Center and the Center for Community Health’s Save-A-Smile Program. Cook Children’s is one of only two recipients nationwide to receive the grant.

“The AAPD Foundation is dedicated to making dental care accessible to all children by supporting nonprofit clinics providing routine cleanings, advanced treatments and ongoing care that helps kids in need,” said Douglas Keck, DMD, MSHed, AAPD Foundation president, pediatric dentist, and dental director of a Federally Qualified Health Center in Florida. “Our support of Save-A-Smile and its medical dental interface initiative represents a pivotal step in bridging the gap between oral health care providers and primary health care practitioners. By working together, we aim to provide sustainable compassionate care for children in need.”

The grant supports a three-year pilot project aimed at developing best practices for bridging the gaps between pediatric medical and dental care. It makes way for a community health worker (CHW) to be embedded with Renaissance Neighborhood Health Center to educate and support families while identifying and addressing any barriers that keep them from completing care.

Cook Children’s Renaissance Neighborhood Health Center is a primary health care home for children living in southeast Fort Worth. The center has both a dental and medical clinic under one roof, making it the ideal location to conduct the pilot. Many within the center’s patient population are considered financially vulnerable and qualify for government-supported health programs such as Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). They may also face non-medical drivers of health such as food insecurity, housing issues and adverse childhood experiences.

Making Connections

Juanita Valles is the community health worker assigned to this medical/dental integration project at Renaissance.

“Families tell me their problems and I listen,” Valles said. “Right now, everyone is struggling financially. Sometimes they need transportation to appointments, childcare, clothing, diaper assistance, car seats for the kiddos, household items or even dental care for the parents themselves. That’s where I come in.”

When a family has a need, Valles works to clear the path to make it easier for them to follow through with medical and dental care. She even goes so far as to make in-home visits with her trusty stuffed assistant, Leo the Lion, when working to educate a family and overcome barriers.

“I take Leo with me everywhere I go and use him to show kiddos how to brush their teeth the right way,” she said. “We also teach them to drink lots of water and stay away from sugary drinks.”

Children with untreated dental problems often have difficulty with pain, eating, sleeping, self-esteem, school attendance and grades. Cook Children’s 2021 Community Health Needs Assessment revealed that more than 175,000, or 1 in 7, children living in Cook Children’s eight-county service area were not able to get the dental care they needed. This rate is 9 times higher than national estimates and 5 times higher than state estimates. Stated barriers included inadequate dental insurance coverage, difficulty scheduling and lack of education and resources for dental care.

“You really relieve all barriers by addressing the social service component of why families may not get the dental care they need for their kids,” Dr. Fuqua said. “And the pediatrician’s office is the perfect place to start because children often visit their pediatricians more frequently in their first years of life than they do dentists.”

Leveling Up

Results from year one of the pilot, which began in January 2023, have already triggered system-wide change, Dr. Fuqua says. Dental screening questions were implemented across all of Cook Children’s Health Care System for well-child visits ages 0 to 3. Children in the pilot project who screen positive are connected with the community health worker. Other opportunities to scale-up and implement new solutions for year two include streamlining pilot data collection and analysis, refining criteria for patient referrals to the community health worker and examining system-wide dental screening data.

In the first 10 months of the pilot, more than 1,000 patients responded to dental screening questions during a well-child check and subsequently scheduled a dental appointment at Renaissance. Of those, 429 patients completed initial dental appointments at Renaissance. In that same time, Valles attempted or completed contact with families 247 times and provided tailored oral health instruction in person or by phone to 50 families.

“That's the beauty of this program and having a community health worker,” Dr. Fuqua said. “It's not as simple as just saying, ‘Oh, your kid needs help and here's where to go.’ These families have so many barriers and so many reasons why they haven't gotten a child to the dentist, but Juanita and this program make a way for them.”

About Cook Children's Neighborhood Clinic Renaissance


At Cook Children's Neighborhood Clinic Renaissance, we're here to help you raise a healthy child from infancy through the transition to adulthood. We offer well checks, immunizations, school and sports physicals, injury treatment, and care for both short-term illnesses and longer-lasting conditions.

If your child needs additional help, we can connect you with more than 60 Cook Children's specialty clinics. We're always ready to answer questions and share resources. Feel free to reach out. We're looking forward to your visit with us in Fort Worth. Learn more about our pediatricians, services and support here.

About Save-A-Smile – Cook Children's Center For Community Health


Save a Smile was founded in 2003 by Cook Children’s to address a gap in oral health services for underserved children. Save a Smile is an innovative, nationally recognized, collaborative program dedicated to providing restorative and preventive dental care to children from low-income families in the community through volunteer dentists. Children eligible for the program are pre-kindergarten through sixth grade at high risk for dental disease from schools pre-selected by the Save a Smile program and participating school districts.