Alma Correia loves kids.
"I've always loved working with children," she said. "I knew my future career would be related to children somehow."
It turns out she was right, but not before an inspiring and experiential journey brought her to Apopka.
Correia graduated from Tufts University where she double majored in Child Development and Community Health. After completing college, she went to work in various settings, including a counselor in a residential children’s home, a nurse’s aide in an emergency room, a dental assistant, and a server at a restaurant.
Service, it turns out, is in her DNA.
Correia completed her dental education at New York University, and it was there that she traveled to Grenada in her junior year and Mexico her senior year to provide dental care to underserved children, and also to realize what her career path would be.
"We were able to provide dental services to kids there," she said. "And that's where I knew for sure I wanted to go into pediatrics. It was that experience that just solidified going into pediatrics for me; those kids were so grateful. It was an amazing experience."
As a dental student, she was the recipient of the Presidential Service Award for her dedication to community service and outreach, and her service to others in her community has continued.
Correia, now lovingly known as "Dr. Alma", partnered with Dr. Andre Baptiste this year to launch the Baptiste Pediatric Dentistry for Kids in Apopka. It's a practice that utilizes all of her talents, and she loves working with Baptiste.
"He was just so down to earth and told me about the need for a pediatric dentist in Apopka," she said. " And I said "let's do it!" I ended up jumping outside of my comfort zone and delving into the uncomfortable, starting a pediatric practice, which I had never done before. But it's been a great learning experience. We have grown tremendously. I see a lot of kids and it's their first time to a dentist. I'm so glad I'm here!"
But for Dr. Alma, there was still something missing in her life.
"Once we moved to Florida, I focused on working and family life," she said. "But then I felt an emptiness because I have such a passion for outreach and community service. I missed giving back. I missed volunteering and offering my services beyond just work."
In January, Correia read an advertisement for Shepherd's Hope, a non-profit looking for volunteers to come in and join their team.
"I wondered if they were looking for dental volunteers," Correia said. "And it turns out they did not offer dental care! However, they had been given a grant to start a dental program."
According to its website, Shepherd's Hope is a Winter Garden-based non-profit organization that provides free primary care and specialty care medical services, education, and wellness programs to the uninsured and underinsured in Central Florida. Since 1997, they have provided over 300,000 free patient visits and medical services.
Shepherd's Hope partners with 3,000 licensed medical and general volunteers, three community hospital systems, 100 diagnostic/secondary providers, and numerous multi-faith partners.
The Dental Acute Care Program, initiated with a grant from the West Orange Health Alliance, provides no-cost urgent dental care to uninsured, low-income citizens in the West Orange community. These services, however, are currently only available to pediatric patients during Back-to-School Physicals.
Each patient is administered an examination and x-ray if needed. Patients are treated or referred to a specialist for follow-up. All treatment is at no charge to the patients.
That's how the program is described on its website, but with the pandemic in full force, they weren't able to get it off the ground as they had intended. But Correia was able to get things moving upon her arrival.
"When I spoke with them, they couldn't believe I was reaching out to them to help with forming and starting a dental practice."
So far, the program is making modest advances, but Correia needs more dentists to get involved.
"It's still growing, and there's still so much we want to do," she said. "What I found out though, is that I can't be the only dentist... so we've been targeting other dental offices and other dentists to try to get more support."
At the first back-to-school screening, Correia saw firsthand the potential this program could have in the community.
"I can't even tell you how many kids we saw," she said. "I was meeting with them just to organize probably about once a month. Then when the summer came, we did our back-to-school event, because kids are already coming in to Shepherd's Hope to get medical clearance. We piggybacked off of that event, and did five screening sessions for about five weeks. So it was one screening a week, and I think we probably saw 80-100 kids."
It was important to get the program up and running, but in 2022, Correia hopes to advance it beyond its current status.
"I have a plan for it to be broken into three phases," she said. "Phase one, which is where we are now, is the screening. We're looking for bigger issues, cavities, teeth that might need extractions, anything that might be infected is what we're trying to achieve through that.
Phase two is when we're going to do cleanings and make sure when we're sending them off to another office, that the dentist treating them can focus on the major issues and the treatment needs of the patient.
The third phase would be to no longer have to send patients out anywhere, but to get everything done in one facility."
It's a lofty goal, but Correia believes the community demand makes it worth the effort.
"I'm hoping it will take off and grow. I think the next most important step is getting the name out there and what it is that we're doing because the dental component is so brand new. The medical part of Shepherd's Hope has been around for years and years. But because dental is so new, probably most dentists don't know that we exist. So hopefully, we can see this move into the next stage. I'm hoping in 2022 we can do a little bit more with it and just see it grow!"
And as confident as Dr. Alma is in Shepherd's Hope, they are also impressed with her.
"Dr. Alma is amazing and we are so lucky to have her on our team and she is such a great ambassador for Shepherd’s Hope," said Abby Rice, the Vice President of Operations at Shepherd's Hope. "As we dealt with the effects of COVID, we had to get creative with our program, so Dr. Alma was essential in that aspect. At our Back to School events, she screened all the kids and provided all of this at no cost. We serve the underinsured and uninsured in Central Florida and provide all of the medical care for free, so the work she does with us fits our mission. As things start to calm down, in a sense, from the pandemic we hope to be able to serve more patients next year through this partnership."
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