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Filling a need (as well as cleaning, crowning, extracting, and implanting) for Georgians with disabilities

The DDD Foundation, Inc. (Dentistry for the Developmentally Disabled), a nonprofit dental clinic serving patients with developmental disabilities, was started to fill a gap left by the shuttering of Atlanta’s Brook Run, a State-managed facility that provided services including dental care for 2,000 developmentally disabled patients. In 1997, when Deidra Rondeno, DDS relocated to Georgia, she called the director of Brook Run about possibly working in their dental clinic, and heard that they had lost their funding, and were moving their equipment out of the building as they spoke. Dr. Rondeno had recently completed a residency program providing specific training for dentists to care for patients with developmental disabilities. Knowing that 2,000 patients were losing access to specialized dental care, Dr. Rondeno decided to start her own nonprofit clinic. She established the DDD Foundation as a nonprofit in 1999, and opened the clinic in 2002. “We got our first grant from the Georgia Health Foundation, and here we still are 14 years later,” she said.

We had the opportunity to speak with CEO and Clinical Director Dr. Rondeno, along with Development Director Sheri Lynch, here at our GCN headquarters, following their participation in a Nonprofit University course.

Over the last 14 years, what are some of the challenges you've faced working with this underserved Atlanta population?

Dr. Deidra Rondeno: Our biggest challenge is working with Medicaid. Most of our patients have Medicaid coverage, and after age 21, it doesn't cover certain services like cleanings and fillings. The challenge comes in when Medicaid deploys system-wide changes. We've come a long way from being 100 percent Medicaid-dependent to 60 percent.

How did you reduce your dependency on Medicaid? 

Rondeno: We started reaching out to more agencies who care for our patients after they turn 21. As soon as they turn 21, their social security check or [private?] funds go to the agency that is taking care of them, so it's up to the agency to schedule their appointments and get them the treatment they require. We reached out to these agencies and set up contracts with them directly. We've really had to grow our service population and make changes along the way to accommodate them, like parents with private insurance whose children live at home; it's a matter of getting the word out about who we are and what we do.

Sheri Lynch: Another challenge is meeting the overwhelming need for our services. There are thousands of people around the state who don't have anywhere else they can go for dental care, and finding funding, qualified dental practitioners, and space to treat those patients are huge challenges we’re taking on.  We've recently expanded our current space so we can treat more patients, and we've also made some internal changes to become more efficient and help move patients a bit more quickly. We are being very strategic with those adjustments: We've recently finished our 3-year strategic plan, and we were awarded a Toolbox grant that guided us through a new strategic planning process. 

Can you tell us a little more about the process of creating your strategic plan?

Lynch: We felt very lucky to find a consultant who not only had a great deal of nonprofit strategic planning expertise, but had also worked with dental associations, and understood how a dental practice operates. She met with our board of directors, did a SWOT analysis, and helped us really think about where we've been, where we are, and where we're going. She helped us organize the process into smaller steps, rather than one overwhelming project, and got our board members fully engaged in and invested in the process, which is exciting. 

Rondeno: Our strategic planning process really put things into perspective for the board as far as what their role should be. We are attending a board education course in October, which I think is also going to be highly engaging. 

Lynch: Going through our strategic plan got everyone’s mental motors running. Now that we know where we are steering this ship, all these smaller things are starting to come to light. For example, we didn't have a thorough board-orientation packet, but after creating the strategic plan we have a clearer way of communicating what our board members are expected to do. 

How do you get people interested in the DDD Foundation?

Rondeno: In 2013, we applied to a contest put on by Encyclomedia to win a professional, $50,000 video production capturing a day in the life of our organization. We made it into their online vote-off, and we got the most votes by getting the word out on the internet. Encyclomedia came in and installed cameras everywhere—on the overhead lights, on top of the dental chairs–and the video they made provides a good example of what we do on a daily basis. It really helps with our fundraising process, because we can show people where their donation is going. But people have to see it!

Lynch: Another big challenge for us is engaging people emotionally when they can't see or speak with a patient, because of privacy protections. Our video has been so helpful because it gives people the feeling of what's going on in our clinic without actually being there. And it was wonderful the way they set up their cameras, letting them film our patients without overwhelming or scaring them.

What's the most rewarding part of your day?

Rondeno: Treating patients. I’m exhausted at the end of the day, but it’s worth it to know that this patient isn't in pain anymore, or someone who hasn't had their teeth cleaned in ten years now has clean teeth. We have a couple patients whose behaviors have become heightened, or even self-harming, because a tooth is giving them pain, but since they are non-verbal their caregivers couldn’t know why they were behaving the way they were. When you know this patient has been in pain, and that you’ve helped relieve it—that's what’s most rewarding to me.

Rachel Letcher is communications coordinator at GCN.

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