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DATS RGV - Wife Honors Husband’s Legacy

(This article was written by Abigail Muniz-Garcia and appeared in the July 2024 issue of Explore Harlingen Magazine.)


In 2021, Elena Villarreal was faced with a difficult decision. At the sudden passing of her husband in 2019, Villarreal had to decide what to do with the successful dental practices he had started as well as a dental school.


“When I sold the practices in 2021, nobody wanted to pick up the school,” Villarreal said. “I was put in front of a choice: to close the school or continue it.”

DATS RGV Founder, the late Dr. Juan Villarreal. Photo by DATS RGV.

Dental Assistant Training School of the Rio Grande Valley (DATS RGV) was founded in 1996 by the late Dr. Juan Villarreal who integrated the courses within his successful practice at Harlingen Family Dentistry, which he established in 1983. The program, which runs for nine weeks, offers their course at a low cost and evening hours, designed around the working individual.


Elena Villarreal ultimately decided to continue running the school due to her passion for education and to honor the memory of her late husband.


“I took this task on myself and with the help of Sharon (Chavez), we jumped all the legal hoops to make it possible for us to continue (with) the school,” Villarreal said. “Mind you it was in the midst of the pandemic, so nobody wanted to let us in with our students to do practicals. So, we were faced with a challenge- how do we still deliver this hands-on experience?” she said.

DATS RGV training graduates. Photo by DATS RGV.

Sharon Chavez, DATS director, was tasked with finding a location that would allow them to be able to offer their students the tools necessary for an immersive learning experience through hands-on learning.


After “knocking on every single door” as Villarreal puts it, Chavez contacted Dentists Who Care, an RGV nonprofit organization. They had a blue mobile unit that had been out of use for a year and a half. After cleaning it up and updating it with dental chairs and other dental equipment, they began using the unit.

DATS RGV mobile unit. Photo courtesy of Abigail Muniz-Garcia.

“That was where we did our practical work for 2 ½ years,” Villarreal said. “We had to think outside the box.”


Chavez added that they would rent the chapel at Culture of Life Ministries for lectures, and they parked the mobile unit outside.


“We would break up the students and send half into the bus to do their clinicals,” Chavez said. The rest of the students would be at the lecture inside the building. “Then we would rotate them.”


DATS saw eight students go through their program in 2021. They hope to reach 100 students in 2024.

DATS RGV building at 6201 FM 106, Unit 1 in Harlingen. Photo courtesy of Abigail Muniz-Garcia.

Their new location, situated at 6201 FM 106 Unit 1 in Harlingen, boasts a classroom space, four full operatories that will be ready in July, a dental office, x-ray equipment, and more.

Villarreal said that they built their new location with continuous education in mind. “Dentists can deliver the courses here,” she said. “It’s set up to become a facility where people can come in and learn.”


In the meantime, they have plans to keep the blue mobile unit for community events like when dentists deliver low or no-cost dental care to RGV residents in need.


She mentioned the mobile unit is part of their story as well. “It’s our history. This is where we started,” she said. “I really want to continue his (her husband’s) legacy because he created such a beautiful program. I didn’t have the heart to close it. I didn’t want to because I love education, too.”


For more information on DATS RGV, visit their website, datrainingschool.com.

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