A student’s wonder inspires Ruona to contribute to scholarship funds
Kimberly Ruona, DDS, remembers what it’s like to pursue dreams as a young adult — a time when the world is open to infinite possibilities and opportunities, and when a helping hand can have a lifelong impact.
“When you work with students, you can’t help but see the world through their eyes,” said Ruona, assistant professor and dental director of Community Dental Services. “Students have a fresh perspective on the world. They have an incredible curiosity — they are like sponges because they want to learn everything. You see yourself in them and wonder if they will follow a similar path.”
A well-timed scholarship transformed Ruona’s journey, and she pays it forward by supporting scholarship and student assistance funds at UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry, where she is an educator, administrator, and mentor.
“I have a soft spot for students who put themselves through school,” she said. “My parents sacrificed everything for my sister and me to go to college. I came from a working-class background. My dad worked in a factory and he worked his way up into management. His work ethic really inspired me.
“For me, philanthropy goes back to a scholarship I received my senior year in dental school — that was so impactful — and since then I’ve given to funds that help students minimize their overall student debt.”
She has also given to memorial endowments to honor special colleagues she admired for shaping the predoctoral education program at the School of Dentistry, including Gene Stevenson, DDS, MS; Rodney Beetar, DDS, MS; and Rod Dosch, DDS.
“They reminded me of my dental school faculty who were the ones most involved in teaching me the foundational aspects of clinical dentistry — skills that I used every day in my practice — and who were consummate educators and role models,” she said. “Giving back is a wonderful way to honor their legacies.”
Ruona spent the first half of her career in private practice before joining the UTHealth Houston faculty in 2011.
“When I was in training in Michigan, my classmates voted me ‘most likely to never leave school.’ They knew something about me that I didn’t know at that time,” she said. “When I decided to sell my practice and come to Houston, I wanted to help students not make the mistakes I made as a new dentist just out in practice. I love seeing how excited students are to learn, especially about the real world that awaits them after graduation.”
The oldest of UTHealth Houston’s six schools, the School of Dentistry has a long history of giving back to the community it serves. Efforts include a mobile dental van that travels to underserved areas and provides free dental care to those in need, as well as the annual outreach programs of Give Kids A Smile and Give Vets a Smile.
In addition to teaching now in the first and second year dental school preclinical curriculum, Ruona is the dental director for a partnership between Harris Health System and UT Dentists which staffs six clinics that provide safety net dental care across Houston and Harris County.
“I love reading our patient satisfaction survey comments,” she said. “Recently, we helped a patient who was in her 50s and it was her first dental visit ever — that alone is very rewarding. We’ve also treated refugees who have recently moved to Houston. The diversity of the population we serve is truly amazing, and the patients are always very grateful.”
This collaboration was the first step in an expansion of UT Dentists, the faculty practice of the UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry. Ruona’s team hires the staff dentists and dental hygienists for the community clinics and the team accomplishes approximately 2,000 patient visits each month.
UT Dentists celebrated another milestone this year, when a 2022 graduate of the dental school was hired to join the Harris Health team.
“She was assigned a community outreach rotation during her fourth year of school at the Harris Health Dental Center, and she liked it so much that she applied for our open position,” Ruona said. “She was one of the first of our dental students to complete a Master of Public Health while also in dental school.”
Ruona said she looks back at the serendipitous twists and turns in her life, and is thankful that her path lead to a place where she can see daily impact in her work — both in the quality of education and patient care delivered.
“I may not treat patients directly anymore, but I hope that I’m still having an impact working more behind the scenes,” she said. “UTHealth Houston is a great place to work. I’ve had wonderful career opportunities here, have made lifelong friends, and philanthropy is one way that I can repay my gratitude.”
The 5th annual UTHealth Houston Giving Day is coming Tuesday, April 4.
Join us for 24 hours of giving, impact, and fun to support education, research and patient care. We invite you to celebrate our mission to improve the health of patients and communities who rely on our work.
Your support will move us closer to a healthier future—whether by providing scholarships for biomedical informatics students, funding research to enhance the well-being of vulnerable populations, or helping us bring oral care to families who otherwise would go without.
Visit givingday.uth.edu to learn how you can make a difference. You can also help spread the word on social media by using the #UTHealthHoustonGivingDay tag.