by Lisa Feierman

EL CERRITO (KPIX 5) – When Lorna Contreras was selected to be a Student Rising Above, it was 2004 and she was a senior at El Cerrito High School.

Now she is the Student Programs Coordinator for the SRA. The program helped her graduate from St. Mary’s College in the East Bay and Contreras knows firsthand that it took far more than just academic support and scholarships.

As a child, Contreras received virtually no medical care.

“We had no insurance,” she recalles. “Really the care was only in emergencies.”

She had seen a doctor when she had bronchitis, and had seen a dentist only once at age six—to have four cavities filled. “I had never had anyone tell me the importance of brushing my teeth, or getting a cleaning, and something so basic became so detrimental in my life.”

Then, in high school, Contreras “hit rock bottom” with her dental health. She had two infected teeth, abscesses on both sides of her mouth, major pain, and was running a fever.

“I remember being so embarrassed by [my teeth] that I never asked for help,” she says, but in the end, she reached out to her SRA mentors. “Were it not for SRA, I’m not sure what I would have done in that instant.”

Barb Hendricks, the Student Programs Director for SRA, leapt into action. Contreras was quickly connected to the University of the Pacific School of Dentistry, and she received the care she needed—emergency root canal surgery and treatment for the infections. SRA paid for Contreras’s antibiotics, purchased her first Sonicare electric toothbrush, and arranged for her to receive long-term dental care.

Contreras’s experience set something big into motion at SRA.

“When I asked [for help], it was unfamiliar territory, but it sparked the conversation that this was not the first time things like this had come up,” she recalls. Today, SRA provides far more than just academic resources like SAT prep, financial aid guidance, school supplies, and summer internship connections.

Being in SRA now includes receiving critical medical care, as many of the students were just like Contreras and have never seen a healthcare professional regularly. Currently, there are about 300 students in SRA. All of them are educated about preventative care and well being, and at least half receive medical, dental, vision, or mental health care through the program.

Director Hendricks knows just how few students have any idea they need wellness or preventative care, let alone act on that need. Take vision, for example. “A lot of our students don’t have the money, the funds, to get glasses, or even the frame of reference to realize they need glasses,” Hendricks says. “So we ask, ‘How many of you think you need glasses?’ And one-third at least raises their hands, so we get them a full eye exam and glasses.”

Since Contreras’s dental crisis, SRA’s role in obtaining healthcare for its students has grown significantly. “As a result of those kinds of informal experiences,” Hendricks says, “we knew we had to get a go-to person to help students navigate the program.”

Enter Dixie Ruland, SRA’s Student Healthcare Coordinator. Ruland has been a part of the program for the last seven years and works with a variety of different situations: She helps students get glasses, ensures they have proper medical ID cards, and helps them handle steep medical expenses without jeopardizing their credit.

“Students get hit with thousands of dollars of medical bills through hospitals and providers,” Hendricks says, “but Dixie [Ruland] knows how to navigate the system and can turn $26,000 bills into as little as $600.”

With her expert knowledge of the healthcare system, Ruland has become an essential part of the SRA team.

“We act like family and provide them the support any concerned parent would have given,” Ruland says.

She uses her role at SRA to connect students with a network of healthcare providers in the area that accept their insurance. Some healthcare professionals provide their services at a reduced rate, as was the case when Contreras was connected with her now long-time dentist, Dr. Willie Woo in Oakland. In fact, Woo provided her with “pro-bono services to take care of all my dental issues once and for all,” she  says.

Seven years later—after countless teeth cleanings, 12 cavity fillings, gingivitis, 2 bridges, and some post-root canal cosmetic work—Contreras is “in the best dental health ever!” She now has health insurance and is proud to pay Dr. Woo back for his years of generosity. “The office calls me their ‘adopted’ daughter—they all give me kisses when I walk in, ask for pictures of my wedding, stay on top of my health, ask me about my family, everything!”

In addition to connecting them with hands-on care in these kinds of situations, SRA educates students about receiving healthcare in the long run. Through presentations, workshops, and one-on-one meetings, “We teach them about the importance of having and maintaining health insurance, carrying an insurance card in their wallet and paying bills on time,” Ruland says.

And the students are eternally grateful for the support. One student wrote to Ruland after a root canal procedure, “Growing up, I was embarrassed to go to the dentist and have them see what a homeless student’s teeth looked like… However, you proved that I shouldn’t be afraid to seek help in my situation and be stressed with cost and payments. Not to mention, ever be scared of physical pain.” Other students have echoed that same gratitude, saying, “Thanks to you, I can now go to school worry free” and “What would I do without you keeping track of me?”

Through its educational programs and healthcare networks, Students Rising Above is giving hundreds of young people like Lorna Contreras the tools they will need to succeed in college and beyond, one step at a time. At SRA, the focus is no longer just on preparing students mentally for college.

“We also want to make sure they are in good health condition before leaving,” Ruland says.

Now, SRA students can stop worrying about their health and start focusing on education.


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