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Courtesy photo (Garza); Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons (Derby)

Ruben Garza will assume take over from Carmen Derby as executive director of the United Way.

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United Way leadership shifts with bright smiles

Garza will take the helm at United Way as dental center moves to new facility in 2022

BRATTLEBORO—After 12 years, United Way of Windham County Executive Director Carmen Derby will move on to serve as business director at Windham County Dental Center, a United Way program.

“One of the most rewarding aspects of the executive director position is the individuals that I have connected with in this community,” Derby says. “Engaging in conversations with small and large business owners, town officials, donors, local and statewide nonprofits, and all community members gave me the perspective that was necessary to lead United Way of Windham County. Bringing folks together to determine a solution to a community issue is so very satisfying.”

On Sept. 1, as Derby moves to lead the dental practice through its upcoming growing stages, current United Way Director of Development and Community Impact Ruben Garza will take on the executive director role.

“Ruben and I have worked together three years, so I’m excited for him to take the helm, and it’s a good time for United Way for new leadership to come into play; we just completed our strategic plan and five-year forecast,” Derby says.

Garza agrees.

“Carmen set my tenure up for success at its onset,” he says. “Without having to go into the strategic plan too deeply, I think that my role as executive director is to guide the organization in a way that remains true to our 63-year history in Windham County,” he says.

“Transparency, honesty, and partnership are key elements to my leadership style,” Garza continues. “My aspiration is that UWWC be an organization where our values, mission, and vision are unflappably aligned with the work we do and with whom we do it.”

Garza says that during the next five years, UWWC will focus on health equity, diversity, equity, inclusion practices, community partnership, and capacity building.

Expanding access to dental care

The Windham County Dental Center is two years old and growing. In the center’s continued partnership with Brattleboro Memorial Hospital (BMH), Derby says that in the summer of 2022, the Center will relocate to a new facility to offer expanded care — although she is not yet ready to talk about where that will be, other than to say it will be in a hospital-owned building.

“I am very excited for this growth opportunity, and that I will continue my working relationship with United Way of Windham County,” she says.

The Center’s roots date back more than a decade to a series of annual one-day pop-up dental clinics.

There, low-income, uninsured, and Medicaid clients could receive free dental care since few — if any — dentists in the county accept Medicaid.

Derby helped organize the clinics, and local dentists donated time and staff members.

“We did that for many years knowing very well it was just a Band-Aid on a very large problem,” she says.

Four years ago, United Way and BMH held conversations around dental care that included community members, potential dental care recipients, and town government and planning representatives asking what it would look like to receive such care when needed in Windham County.

The decision was ultimately made that the “only way” to accommodate those in the community who needed dental care — focusing on Medicaid patients but not limited to them — was to “open a dental center,” Derby says.

In 2019, the Center opened at 375 Canal St. Since then, it has served close to 2,000 patients, she estimates.

“We see an average 250 to 275 appointments a month,” she says of the current Center, which has just one dentist, three operatories (working/surgery spaces), and one hygienist.

All of these statistics will expand after the move to larger quarters.

Vermont Department of Health records show that when the Center opened, Windham County had 5,000 Medicaid recipients without dental “homes,” because there weren’t enough practices to accommodate them all.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem as more dental offices eliminated taking on Medicaid patients.

“A lot will depend on funding,” Derby says, adding that she’s currently focusing on grants but that donations will be gratefully accepted.

“In the dental world, everything is extremely expensive,” she adds. “Our hope and plan is to, in the future, have eight to 10 operatories with many additional dentists and, definitely, additional hygiene.”

Making the shift

Derby, who has been with United Way for 17 years, says she decided to make the shift to the Center, which has always fallen under her umbrella of responsibility as a United Way program, after spending a lot of time there.

“With expansion, I really felt it needed attention and to have that attention focused on what the next steps are to bring it to the next level to be ready for the staff and physical move,” she says.

Partnering with BMH, which brings real estate to the table, also has another “unique and wonderful” association for the Center, says Derby, in that its dentist is a BMH employee, as future dentists will be.

Other staff members work for United Way. That allows for treating the person, not just his or her oral health, which is very much associated with whole health.

“The beauty of having the physician be an employee of BMH is that we believe dental care should not be separated from overall health care,” Derby says. “This way, the dentist can talk with other physicians regarding a patient, bringing us to the next level of care with that patient.”

“We also might have a primary care doctor that observes something, maybe related to the food they eat because they have bad oral health,” she continues, “and then that doctor can talk to our dentist and we can develop an overall plan.”

“If someone has health insurance, it doesn’t mean they have dental insurance — and that’s most of us,” Derby points out. “We know the tremendous connection with oral care, and it can really alter your health.”

Derby’s job, she says, is to “help with policies, think through procedures and [determine] what are the barriers our patients are facing,” and to try to “figure out how we can assist them.”

In so doing, Derby’s and the Center’s mission takes things a step farther than most so that the patient can rest assured.

“In many other care places you might make a patient referral, but we walk the patient through so they know we’ve made the connection,” she says.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #626 (Wednesday, August 18, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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