Women Working for University of Arizona Cooperative Extension’s First Smiles Make a Difference in Children’s Lives, Find Rewarding Careers

In Impacting Patients, She's Touching Lives by Faith Ann Schwartz

Working for The First Smiles Cooperative Extension

Christy Stuth starts her day packing up Spiderman and My Little Pony toothbrushes along with a portable dental screening kit, and then drives to a preschool an hour and a half away. As part of the First Smiles program, she visits each classroom, gives a 20-minute oral health lesson; then does dental screenings and applies fluoride varnish to the teeth of preschoolers—who may or may not have regular access to dental care.

Our programs focus on the highest risk members of our community, which are often facing racial, economic, and social inequalities,” says Stuth, who has been a dental hygienist for 11 years, and now works as a Program Coordinator for the ‘First Smiles’ program.

Stuth enjoys the hands-on clinical aspect of her job

Stuth enjoys the hands-on clinical aspect of her job, but also does so much more.

She develops oral health policies for childcare centers, including implementing toothbrushing programs and providing technical assistance, as well as conducting research through education surveys, oral health screening surveys, data collection and analysis. She creates advertising posters and flyers, educational pamphlets, and presents oral health curriculum for health professionals, childcare professionals, children, and families.

Stuth works in Cochise County, Arizona, for the ‘First Smiles’ program, which is a program under the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.  

Thanks to the benefits of land grant universities, we can offer this practical help to children.

The Extension system is delivered through Land Grant Universities; every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia has a designated land grant university.  The system was set up after the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, and eventually expanded when the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 created a ‘Cooperative Extension Service’ associated with each land-grant institution.

In many cases, modern land-grant universities have expanded to become modern public research institutions, although most still teach the practical skills—agriculture and mechanics—on which they were originally established. They still strive to provide this education to all Americans regardless of race or economic status.

Today, the mission of UA Cooperative Extension—and other Extension systems across the country – is to take knowledge from the University—the latest information on nutrition, agricultural science, early literacy concepts, and healthy living—including oral health—out to the broader communities.

Several Arizona communities began to benefit when UA Cooperative Extension’s ‘First Smiles’ started in Arizona in 2008, after a need for increased advocacy and access to oral health in Arizona, particularly in rural areas, was identified. The program is supported in part, by a grant from First Things First.  Stuth says the program in her county alone, now in six of Arizona’s 15 counties, screens and varnishes the teeth of about 3,000 children annually.

Stuth is passionate about her work and finds the job demanding but fulfilling.

“I am passionate about my work and I’m grateful to be able to provide education and services to those most in need,” says Stuth, who has worked for ‘First Smiles’ for three years, and finds her demanding, but unique job fulfilling, and mentions how much variety there is in positions in the dental field for women.

“This career can be very rewarding—in the sense that in a clinical setting you will often connect with a patient in a way that significantly impacts their health and wellbeing, and that is the *best* feeling,” Stuth says.

Greeta Mills says her work with First Smiles is rewarding – and essential.

Greeta Mills loves her part in the First Smiles program as well.

Meanwhile, three hours away, Christy Stuth’s counterpart packs her supplies for her preschool visit that day.

“I love to set up right in a corner of the classroom as that is a very comfortable and safe place for the child,” says Greeta Mills, also a dental hygienist, and the Program Coordinator for the First Smiles program in Pinal and Gila Counties.

“A screening session starts with a fun oral-health/dental story.  During the course of reading the story, we ask children to show us “2” fingers, and talk about brushing two times a day for two minutes.  There is a time when I will ask them if they have big teeth in the back, and they open and show me. Those children with a returned consent form are screened and fluoride varnish is applied as appropriate,” says Mills.

Mills has been with the First Smiles program for about two years. Prior to that, she was full-time faculty at the Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health, but started to develop an interest in public health.

“When I was asked to apply for the Program Coordinator position, I jumped at it! Little did I realize at the time that it would turn out to be one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done in my 37 year dental career,” says Mills.

Mills says her work is rewarding—and essential.

“Tooth decay in children is a very real problem, with 41% of Pinal County and 43% of Gila County kindergartners experiencing untreated tooth decay.  Nationwide, early childhood caries is the number one childhood disease. With these realities being experienced in our own communities, it is a perfect fit for the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension’s ‘First Smiles’ to address the needs,” says Mills.  She also says in Pinal and Gila Counties – they served more than 5,800 children in 2018.

Stuth agrees their First Smiles work is essential.

“The Cooperative Extension works in unison with other dental/healthcare providers and community programs to supplement our services and ensure non-cost education and holistic care. Our mission is to engage with individuals to improve lives, families, communities, environment, and economies in Arizona and beyond; this goal can only be achieved through sincere, honest and responsible work unburdened by barriers to health,” says Stuth.

To learn more about the ‘First Smiles’ program at the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, check out the website at https://extension.arizona.edu/

Or, reach out to Christy Stuth, at cread@email.arizona.edu , or Greeta Mills at gmills@email.arizona.edu.

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