Flagstaff Citizen of the Year Jenny Zamora-Garcia working to bring smiles across Arizona

Jenny Zamora-Garcia has been selected as one of Flagstaff’s citizens of the year for 2022. She has spent decades promoting public health in the city through her work as a dental hygienist and volunteer service.

Zamora-Garcia said she’s known she wanted to work in dentistry since age 14, first thinking to follow in her father’s footsteps to become an Air Force dentist.

“I like everything about the person’s smile,” she said of her interest in the field. “It reflected a lot, because it’s the first thing you see other than the eyes, and so to me the smile just radiated. I was like, ‘I want to make people smile — how can I help them?’”

Northern Arizona University (NAU) was one of only two Arizona schools with a dental hygiene program at the time, so she moved to Flagstaff for school in 1984 with the goal of joining the Air Force as a dentist. While there, she met her husband, Frank A. Garcia, on a blind date and decided to stay in the area so he could operate the family business.

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The two have lived in Flagstaff ever since. Zamora-Garcia earned her degree and began working at a private practice. A few years later, Coconino County’s public health hygienist was relocating and offered Zamora-Garcia her position.

Zamora-Garcia said that although she planned to work there only a few years, she found a passion for public health and ended up staying nearly three decades. The field gave her an opportunity to serve the community rather than just one person at a time, she added.

“It was a good opportunity to provide dental services to a community,” she said. “… Working public health, you’re able to serve a community.”

Zamora-Garcia began organizing and helping to provide services at a variety of events, extending throughout Arizona as well as Flagstaff. Her efforts included many volunteer roles in addition to her job.

Jenny Zamora-Garcia, center, was recognized as an Oral Health Hero by the Northern Arizona Oral Health Coalition. Also pictured from left to right are Maureen Pisano, Dr. Dale Hallberg and Dr. Jonathan Robinson.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun

She helped expand Arizona Dental Mission of Mercy’s annual free dentistry event to Flagstaff in the summer of 2019, organizing as the lead hygienist. With Give Kids a Smile, she provided screenings to children in Flagstaff schools, helping provide access to families that weren’t able to get dental care. In 2018, she even traveled to do dental work in Honduras with the World Gospel Organization.

Over the years she’s also volunteered with Hope Fest, the Arizona Dental Foundation, the Lance Davison High Country Veteran Stand Down and still regularly provides free services for low-income patients at the Poore Clinic, among others.

Vicki Penna, RDH, MS, who works for NAU’s department of dental hygiene and nominated Zamora-Garcia for the award, said one of the main impacts she saw her have on Flagstaff has been in helping kids not be afraid of the dentist.

“She’s provided care for kids who normally don’t have access to care and she does it in a way where kids have fun and are not afraid,” Penna said.

Zamora-Garcia’s work with Coconino County is also where her time as Flagstaff’s tooth fairy began — which is still how many in the city recognize her.

When she first began going into schools to provide services, she noticed kids were not always engaged, so she began trying new ways to make dentistry more captivating. In addition to incorporating learning games into her lessons and handing out small prizes, she began dressing up as characters ranging from Jessie the Cowgirl to Princess Leia and even a giant molar.

“I had boots… and a big toothbrush that I spray-painted, and I had a big balloon crest and gold cord for floss,” she remembered of one Power Ranger-themed costume.

Her signature look continues to be the tooth fairy, complete with a sparkly dress and shoes, tiara and wings. She’s gone through several outfits over the years, she said, and the costume continues to bring excitement to learning for the kids she works with.

“It’s funny because it really ends up sticking,” she said. “People are like, ‘I don’t remember your name, but I know that you’re the tooth fairy.’”

Zamora-Garcia continues to provide dental care in Flagstaff, providing screenings for kids in schools with the University of Arizona cooperative extension and working on a grant to provide free dental care to adults in the community.

High Country Stand Down

Jenny Zamora-Garcia, a dental hygienist in Flagstaff, and Thomas Cardwell, a dentist for Coconino County, assist inside the free dental clinic at the Flagstaff Armory in this 2015 file photo.

Betsey Bruner, courtesy of Coconino County Supervisor Mandy Metzger

She has also worked to train aspiring hygienists as an adjunct professor at NAU, using teaching as well as leading trips to Flagstaff Medical Center to provide bedside oral care and children’s services. With NAU, she also helped with the Arizona Healthy Smiles, Healthy Bodies Survey meant to increase awareness of needs across the state, and received a grant to provide services and resource connections across the Navajo Nation.

In February 2021, the Northern Arizona Oral Health Coalition named her its first Oral Health Hero for her work to improve dental health in the region.

“I think most people need dental services,” she said. “They may have access that takes care of medical, but dental is omitted, and it’s crazy because the mouth is a part of the body. It’s the gateway to our body.”

She added: “There’s a link between oral and systemic and people don’t realize that. They think if you have a toothache and it doesn’t hurt, then you don’t take care of it. But if you break your arm, you’re going to go get the X-ray done.”

Penna, who met Zamora-Garcia 14 years ago when she was first hired to teach dental hygiene at NAU, described working with her as “pure joy.”

“She is always so kind and open and helpful,” she said. “She spends a lot of time with students, she’ll spend time with faculty, she always has a smile on her face.”

What made her want to nominate Zamora-Garcia, Penna said, what the selfless attitude she takes to everything she does — be it work or volunteering.

“A lot of people do good,” Penna said. “Jenny is one of those people who is absolutely selfless and never says no to anybody. … Anywhere she was needed, anything she was asked to do, she always said yes, whether it was coaching sports or volunteering in the dental hygiene clinic.”

Zamora-Garcia’s impact on Flagstaff extends beyond dentistry as well.

She was a big sister through Big Brothers Big Sisters. And she’s always loved sports and served as a coach for soccer and baseball while her two sons — Aaron and Jordan — were young. Though they’re grown now and live across the country, Zamora-Garcia is still involved in the local sports scene, serving as scholarship coordinator for the Flagstaff Tennis Association.

Zamora-Garcia said she was honored to receive the citizen of the year recognition and that she cried when she heard the news.

“I’ve always told my kids that you only live once, so play a good role and be humble and kind, and give back to your community because you never know when your community’s going to give back to you,” she said. “ … Flagstaff’s a unique community because we all work together cohesively and you can actually make a difference.

“In Flagstaff, our community is just so engaging and supportive,” she added

Zamora-Garcia said she wanted to make sure she recognized her family for their love and support. She said her sons are “my rock and inspiration,” while her husband has “always been one to encourage me to be the best that I can be.”

“Thank you to all my family, my coworkers and friends who make me a better person,” she said. “I love you.”

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