Grantee Spotlight: Dental Aid, Inc.

When we last reported on the community impact of Dental Aid – a grantee of Community Foundation Boulder County – we spoke with Dennis Lewis, who recently retired after 17 years of service with the safety-net provider. This month, we caught up with Ernest (Ernie) Duff, Dental Aid’s new Executive Director, about his vision for the oral healthcare provider to families in Boulder and Broomfield counties who struggle to afford care.  

“My official start date was Sept. 17, but I started showing up for work on Sept. 6 for a volunteer transition with Dennis,” says Ernie, who previously served as Executive Director of Denver’s Howard Dental Center and the Rocky Mountain Survivors Center. Additionally, he held the same title at the Life After Exoneration Program in Berkeley, CA. “Over the years, I heard about Dental Aid and its important mission to serve low-income and uninsured residents. Through the many incarnations of Dental Aid since its founding, that mission remains as pertinent today as it did then.”
Adds Ernie, “The staff here are exemplary. The dentists, oral surgeons, and dental hygienists – as well as our support staff whom I think of as frontline heroes – they’re all superb, and they all understand our mission to work with lower income community members to ensure that everyone has access to quality oral healthcare. They could be elsewhere, in the private sector, and earn more money … but they’re here out of dedication to our mission.” 
With a master’s degree in psychology and another master’s in divinity, Ernie is no stranger to working with marginalized populations. “I’ve been in the nonprofit sector for 30 years, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with people from all over the world – in many cases, people who have been through a lot of stress and trauma,” he says. “There’s always been an element of multidisciplinary healthcare in everything I’ve done. Through that lens, Dental Aid struck me as ‘up north’ from the rest of us in the safety-net sector. I always understood Dental Aid to be clued in to the bigger picture, engaged in every phase of oral healthcare.
“Dental Aid pioneered the community-based dental hygienist approach to providing care, now in three clinics – in Longmont, Louisville, and Boulder – covering two counties. From emergency care to preventive and restorative care to specialty care, we provide the full spectrum of oral healthcare.” Indeed, Dental Aid was one of the first standalone, nonprofit, complete-care dental clinics in the country, starting as a referral service in 1974, and opening its first clinic in 1980. Today, the nonprofit provides dental care to more than 8K children and adults annually.
Earlier this month, Dental Aid was recognized as Partner of the Year by the Bridge House Ready to Work program (Bridge House is also a foundation grantee). Additionally, Dental Aid has established relationships with the Northern Colorado and Boulder County AIDS projects (another foundation grantee) to provide oral healthcare to people with HIV infection; and with Early Head Start to educate care providers in the early recognition and referral of white spot lesions, and the prevention of early childhood caries.
“We’ve made lots of inroads into the community,” Ernie says. “And we’ve increased our clinical excellence over the years. Still, I hope we’ll always challenge ourselves to explore new opportunities to refine our services for diverse populations.”
Among those diverse populations – and with an eye on Veterans Day, coming up on Nov. 11 – are local vets. 
“We extend compassion for all,” says Ernie, who served as an enlisted person during the Carter administration, including as a Navy radarman, and helping to rescue Vietnamese ‘boat people’ in the South China Sea. “Veterans are among the people we work with, and among the populations we consider when we think about how to do better to help improve the health of our community as a whole.”
Support our local vets by donating to the Veterans Fund at the Community Foundation by Veterans Day.
Concludes Ernie, “My immediate goal is to take our successes and the relationships we have in place, and shore them up. By making the ties that bind us more robust, building community – and building community resilience – is what I’m about.”