ALAMOSA — From homeless refugee to dental hygienist, Maria Matias’ journey began many years — and many miles — ago in Guatemala.
Recently opening SLV Global Dental Care in Alamosa — in large part to give back to the community that became home to her as a young immigrant — Matias is now a registered dental hygienist splitting her time between Denver and Alamosa.
She can relate to the immigrant youngsters coming to her for oral health care. She once was one of them.
Matias’ family left Guatemala in the 1980’s because of the civil war. On their way to the United States they spent about two years in Mexico where at times their shelter consisted of cardboard boxes or an abandoned factory.
First arriving in California, the family then moved to Alamosa because Maria’s father had been promised a job here.
“When we came, he did not have a job,” Matias recalled. “We didn’t have anywhere to go. La Puente was our first home when we first arrived to Alamosa.”
The local homeless shelter provided the Matias family a place to stay for almost six months as they looked for work and other housing.
The Matias family then found a small studio apartment, cramped quarters for the family of six that grew to eight after their arrival, with two of Maria’s siblings born here. She is second to the oldest of the six children.
Initially coming to the country illegally, the Matias family was ultimately granted amnesty as refugees from a war-torn country.
Glen and Lois Bean, who were volunteering at La Puente at the time the Matias family came to Alamosa, sponsored them and helped them with transportation, housing and citizenship procedures. “Grandpa Glen” and “Grandma Lois” became like another set of parents for the Matias children and took three of the children into their own home. Maria was one of those who lived with the Beans.
School was initially difficult for Maria and her siblings, whose native language was Mayan and for whom Spanish and English were foreign languages.
“Definitely coming to another country was the hardest thing in the world, new culture, new surroundings,” Matias said.
She remembered being teased by other children because she was different.
“We were teased on the bus. Kids wouldn’t let us sit next to them. We didn’t really have any friends. We couldn’t communicate.”
However, she added, “We got through that. We survived.”
Through the encouragement of Grandpa Glen and Grandma Lois, and her own hard work, Maria was making the honor roll by eighth grade.
By high school she was becoming more involved in student organizations such as Spanish Club, where she served as president. She was glad to help volunteer with community service projects.
Being involved and giving back to the community was something Grandpa Glen and Grandma Lois believed in and lived by example.
Seeing how the Beans lived their faith was also an example for Maria who had had a desire for spiritual things before but had “a whole new beginning” in the Beans’ home where faith was lived out every day.
“They played a big role in my life. They were always supportive, and they didn’t judge. All they gave us was support and encouragement … They had that much belief in me that I could do something,” Matias said. “I am so glad they came into my life.”
Matias became involved with dental care her junior year of high school when she was asked to assist with the migrant education program.
Working with the migrant dental program was totally new for Matias.
“We never even went to the dentist ourselves,” she recalled.
She became an assistant to dental students who would come to the Valley to work with the migrant program.
“They were able to train me on the job,” she said. “Because I was able to communicate in three languages, I did a lot of translating and assisting with dental. That’s when I got into hygiene and starting working with a hygienist.”
Matias found that she enjoyed learning — and educating others — about oral health care, so much so that she decided to make a career of it.
She earned an associate degree in science at Adams State where she was able to fulfill her prerequisites for the dental hygiene program.
She then went through a dental assistant program and subsequently the hygiene program at the Community College of Denver where she always made the Dean’s List, even while working as a live-in nanny in exchange for room and board.
“This was all meant to be,” she said. “I knew I was doing the right thing.”
She is now a registered dental hygienist.
In Denver she works with pediatric clinics through the Rocky Mountain Youth Clinics, which integrate medical and dental health care.
Oral health is important to overall health, and an unhealthy mouth can affect the rest of the body and general health, Matias stressed.
She is especially focused on education to help eradicate dental decay at an early age, she said.
She is still involved in community service, for example helping promote oral health care with Delta Dental Foundation and I Have a Dream Foundation. Matias goes into schools to provide dental services, many times for free, and educate on the importance of oral health.
There is a great need for dental care at all ages, but Matias’ emphasis is with children.
“I am definitely passionate about taking care of kids and really educating them.”
She added, “If parents can be educated, then they will be able to take care of the kids.”
She starts that education with infants who are teething or even before that, when moms are still pregnant.
Matias is CEO of SLV Global Dental Care at 235 Carson Avenue (between Arby’s and El Charro) in Alamosa (719-368-8381), which is open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Services include cleanings, infant oral health exams, preventive treatments, digital X-rays, non-surgical periodontal treatments, oral cancer screening and other services.
“We hope to touch as many lives as we can and give back to the community,” she said.
She believes there is a great need for her services here. She is able to speak in English, Spanish and her native Mayan language (Kanjobal), and has many patients from the large Guatemalan community here.
Matias still has family in Alamosa, with her mother and some of her siblings still here. Her father moved back to Guatemala.
Maria is married with two children, an 8-year-old and 3-year-old. Her husband and children helped her set up the office and have been supportive of her work.
“They are the ones that inspire me to keep going.”
She added, “I believe when you really enjoy what you are doing God rejuvenates you, gives you that energy to keep doing what it is that fulfills your spirit.”