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Leaving an enduring legacy

San Diego dentist finds vital work in serving vulnerable seniors

September 01, 2017

By Kimber Solana

Serving seniors: A patient receives an oral examination at the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center in San Diego. Dr. Karen Becerra, a graduate of the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership, serves as CEO and dental director of the center, which is dedicated to serving low-income seniors. The 1,400-square-foot facility opened in October 2016 and is expected to serve about 1,000 patients in its first year.
Editor's Note: This is the first in a series featuring graduates of the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership and how these dental leaders continue to affect their communities.

San Diego — Dr. Karen Becerra had always wanted to be a pediatric dentist but today, instead of treating the youngest of patients, she's treating the oldest.

"It's been a very interesting transition," Dr. Becerra said.

It began when she boarded a single engine airplane during a trip in her home country of Colombia.

"The engine failed, and I thought that moment was the last minute of my life," Dr. Becerra said. "When I survived, I made a commitment to myself to live a life that matters. Before I die, I want to make sure I leave an enduring legacy — something of significance, something that has a lasting impact."

After getting back to San Diego, Dr. Becerra started volunteering, serving meals to seniors at the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center, a nonprofit dedicated to helping seniors in poverty live healthy and fulfilling lives. During the center's fifth anniversary celebration, Dr. Becerra said, a senior came up to talk to her and Mary West, who, along with husband Gary, donated to Serving Seniors, the center's flagship nonprofit facility, to help make the center a model of health, nutrition and wellness for low-income older adults.

"This senior could barely speak, and we had a hard time understanding her," Dr. Becerra said. "Her mouth was in such bad condition. When the senior left, Mary West said, 'I wish there was more we could do.'"

Dr. Becerra
Dr. Becerra turned to Ms. West and responded, "' Mary, this is so wonderful that you're doing everything you can to provide meals and support to these deserving seniors, but I agree with you. Some of them can't even eat the meals we provide because they simply don't have teeth. There has to be more we can do.'"

About four years later, in October 2016, Gary and Mary West unveiled the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center, a nonprofit community dental center located at the wellness center and dedicated to serving low-income seniors in San Diego. Dr. Becerra serves as its CEO and dental director.

"As much as I wanted to be a pediatric dentist, I have always had a passion for treating the vulnerable," she said. "That's exactly what I'm doing now."

The first in her family to have graduated from a university, Dr. Becerra earned her dental degree from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, Colombia, and a master's degree in public health from the Universidad del Rosario in Bogota.

In 2008, two colleagues in Southern California, including former ADA President Carol Gomez Summerhays, encouraged Dr. Becerra to apply for the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership. As part of the Institute, participants are tasked with developing and executing a personal leadership project that addresses an issue or challenge in his or her community, organization or profession.

For her Institute project, Dr. Becerra sought to create a nonprofit to address childhood obesity. Institute participants receive help from the ADA staff and work with leading educators from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

"I wanted to be a key player in childhood obesity prevention," she said.

But then she took that trip to Colombia in 2012 and returned to volunteer with vulnerable seniors in her community.

"I saw many of the seniors I worked with were falling through the cracks," she said. "As we age, our systems and organs start deteriorating. We face more chronic diseases.
Vulnerable seniors, face a lot of needs: social, medical and oral health plus they live on a limited income so that is very hard."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 60 percent of seniors saw a dentist in 2016. Dental visits are even scarcer among low-income seniors and minorities. In addition, one in five adults aged 65 and over have untreated tooth decay, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

By utilizing many of the organizational skills and knowledge she learned from her mentors at the Institute, Dr. Becerra now seeks to address the issue of dental care among seniors at the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center. Dr. Becerra oversaw all phases of planning for the dental center — from concept to facility design, licensure and permits, to business planning and fundraising.

The center expects to serve about 1,000 patients in the 1,400-square-foot facility in its first year. The majority of patients who are being seen at the dental center are eligible for Denti-Cal, the dental program within California's Medicaid (Medi-Cal) program. Other services are provided based on a sliding fee scale.

In addition to person's oral health care, patients receive case management and wellness services offered by Serving Seniors, including supportive services, legal and mental health support. The Senior Dental Center also works with the West Health Institute, a nonprofit medical research organization also funded by Gary and Mary West to conduct research that helps policymakers find solutions to address oral health care for seniors.

"We get questions from other dentists to asking about how we have been able to do this," she said. "We're trying to find that right balance, so we can share our success story with others."

Dr. Becerra said she hopes the center is creating a public/philanthropic model that can be replicated in other parts of the country.

For more information on the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center, visit For more information on the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership, which now admits 16 dentists each year with all expenses covered by the ADA, Henry Schein Cares and Oral B+Crest, visit