Areli Estrada: The Smile-Maker

By Katy Macek | Photography by Hillary Schave

Areli Estrada has come a long way from the small Mexican village she grew up in. She learned from a young age how to live with very little means, and now she’s helping others rise above similar situations.

Estrada earned her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis on human development from UW-Green Bay, a master of applied science from UW-Madison and in August 2021 took on her biggest role yet: executive director of Affordable Dental Care, a nonprofit that provides reduced-cost dental services to the underinsured and uninsured. It’s staffed by a combination of paid clinical and administrative staff and volunteer dentists.

In less than a year, she’s secured more than $1 million in grant funding for Affordable Dental Care. She’s hired more administrative staff and has grown the number of patients the nonprofit serves.

Estrada’s tenacity is what inspired Lauren Lui, programs and dental assistant for Affordable Dental Care, to nominate her boss as a 2023 Woman to Watch.

“She’s powerful,” Lui says. “She comes into the room with a large presence that doesn’t go unnoticed. She always has the widest smile on her face and … is very intentional in the way she interacts with people.”

Estrada credits her upbringing for her drive. She saw how hard her parents worked, first in Mexico and later at factory jobs in Los Angeles, where the family emigrated to when she was 7 years old, and then to Manitowoc. She’s the first in her family to get a college degree — her father only made it to first grade.

“I wanted to work with nontraditional students, creating opportunities for someone like my father,” she says.

She moved to Madison after being hired as the student support coordinator for Madison College, continuing to work with nontraditional adult populations.

Affordable Dental Care brings everything full circle.

The clinic serves patients of all backgrounds, but Lui says something special about Estrada is her ability to connect with its large Spanish-speaking population.

“She’s also a voice and a figure for other Latinx individuals,” Lui says.

In 2023, Estrada wants to grow the practice even further, by owning their own building. She’s also planning on doubling the number of treatment rooms from four to eight. As of press time, Affordable Dental Care served nearly 2,900 patients in 2022.

“With the expansion, it’s fair to say we’re looking at about 5,000 patient care visits,” once it’s completed, she says.

She’ll also be able to hire another part-time dentist through funding from an Equity Recovery Grant Program. In late 2022, the nonprofit was awarded a $25,000 grant, an increase of $15,000 more than the prior year from Forward Community Investments that will help patients pay for dental care in 2023.

Though she’s proud of how far she’s come, Estrada says she could not do this without her supportive team.

“I want to continue to deliver compassionate care, but it’s through all the people that work here,” she says. “They’re the ones doing the hard work. I’m just securing funding.”

Why do you think Madison is a special place to be doing your work?

“I have lived in Mexico, L.A. and Green Bay … Madison is so unique because of its ability to bring people together and work collaboratively. I have a lot of support, and there are large and influential Black and Latino communities here. That’s why we are able to get so many things done.”

Read more about the 2023 Women to Watch here.

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