The town I grew up in Alabama was nothing but dirt roads and a four-way stop—and no one ever talked about going to college. Like many of the girls I knew—or have since known—I found myself with a new baby at the age of 17, and it seemed like fate had decided to keep me in the station to which I was born.
The real story began, however, when my new husband was stationed in Italy with the Air Force. With a second baby and in a new culture, many people would have decided they had enough on their plate and spent their time raising their kids and enjoying what Northern Europe had to offer. But I wanted to do something that mattered, at least to me, so I took an opportunity to volunteer with The American Red Cross there, where I was first introduced to the dental world. I was fortunate enough to work alongside a man for 18 months who would, in a way, become my mentor—Dr. Jeffrey Staples. As his chairside assistant, I not only learned the ins and outs of dentistry, but Dr. Staples gave me confidence and encouraged me to pursue a career in dental hygiene.
I had taken my first step onto the ladder.
Ultimately, my marriage didn’t work out and I found myself back in small town Alabama, in a house on a dirt road—again—with well water and surviving on $625 in child support and $225 in food stamps, with two kids in tow. Never one to be satisfied, I was able to obtain a Pell Grant to go to hygiene school at a college about an hour’s drive away. I remember being so overwhelmed—particularly with classes like Anatomy and Physiology—words I hardly knew the meaning of, and I knew I had to work twice as hard to get where I wanted to be. But I finally did graduate (second in my class), and with just seven cents to my name. A few years later, I met my wonderful husband (with whom I have shared the last 23 years), and we moved to Marietta, Georgia where I worked part time as a dental hygienist.
One fateful day, I was witness to a terrible car accident. A van was making a turn and caught a motorcyclist unaware. The motorcycle hit the van, then a teenager hit the motorcyclist, throwing him quite a ways into a ditch. I ran up to the ditch and noticed that the motorcyclist was injured, his breathing very labored. I tried my best to remember my (largely nonexistent) CPR training. It was the most helpless I had felt in my entire life. I decided in that moment to become a CPR instructor myself—not only so I could help people in an emergency, but so I could properly teach others to do the same.
Another step up the ladder.
Having become a certified instructor, my commitment and enthusiasm caught the eye of my American Heart Association Training Center who asked me to become a faculty member, where I would go on to train teach others to be instructors.
Around the same time, a local oral surgeon had been hosting a study club and he invited me to join. These study clubs in the early days were some of the most enjoyable experiences of my professional life. 30-35 of us would get together, eat, talk, commiserate, gossip and learn about interesting dental-related topics. Some great friendships were formed and we all became better, more committed, and more passionate at our jobs. Eventually, the oral surgeon decided he wanted to put his time towards other things and announced he would be disbanding the study club. I couldn’t let the momentum we’d built go to waste, so he allowed me to make an announcement that I was forming a new group and I began holding study club meetings in the clubhouse of my subdivision.
Another step up the ladder.
Over the years, it grew and grew, until I was renting hotel ballrooms to accommodate our swelling numbers. During one event I looked around the room and was disappointed when I noticed not one of the original study club members were in attendance. I thought back to the fun we’d had, the intimate environment in which we’d learned so much and supported each other. I thought about a saying I had always held to through the years: “You learn more in circles than in rows.” And even though the growth of my study club signaled a great success in a way, I decided then and there to, as they say, “go back to my roots,” but in such a way as to still include as many people as possible.
Just one more step up the ladder.
I started three study club chapters, the original in Canton, Georgia, and two more in Marietta and Atlanta. I told my attendees, if you drive more than 30 minutes to get here, let me know and we will open up another chapter. These study clubs grew and proliferated to such a degree that it occurred to me that it might be time to go national. By perhaps luck and coincidence, The Dental Peeps Network asked me to become an affiliate partner. This allowed me to now promote events to their 300,000+ member strong network. In 2019, I started training representatives in the major cities across the U.S. to host events. It was a grand idea, but the model that had worked so well in Georgia did not find the same success in other major markets. Renting spaces, providing food, and booking a speaker proved to be an expensive endeavor, especially when attendance was not always what I had hoped it would be. Pivoting the business model, I came up with the idea to livestream my events—and patch the other groups in live. If attendance was low in one of the smaller chapters, it was not a problem as the Event Manger was hosting in her home rather than a venue. I also found it less expensive for my camera guy and I to go speaker’s location (rather than flying them to a venue) and cut costs that way.
This concept worked quite well, and I hired the help of a livestreaming company to handle the technical aspects of the task and I was always brainstorming ways to make this dream financially viable. In the fall of 2019, I had an event coming up in Chicago. This is where I had the idea try an experiment and make the events free to all attendees.
Still another step up that ladder.
It was a massive success, with more than 400 people in attendance. This sparked a new model for what is now my organization, Wizdom Dental Education Solutions. As we continued with this model, we saw our attendance numbers grow: 600 people, 1,000 people, 1,500 people… With Covid-19 pandemic slowing down the industry (and everything else), I knew something had to change. The process needed to be more flexible and efficient. So with the help of my son-in-law’s younger brother, Jeremy Wolfe, I learned how to do the livestreaming myself and began a search for sponsors. I also applied and was accepted as a Academy of General Dentistry PACE Provider so that I could approve the continuing education content myself, thus cutting my overhead even more. Wizdom continues to grow now and with these added skills it is primed to become an industry leader.
Just one more rung up the ladder brings us to where I am today: company sponsorships.
A little more than a year ago, ProBiora Health reached out to me about helping to start a Lunch & Learn program for them. I originally thought “no,” but upon researching the company and realizing the importance of the oral microbiome, I signed on and have been working with them ever since. I am also very excited to be working with StellaLife, the origin story of which is of personal importance to me. A couple of years ago, I needed a graft – which as all of you in the dental industry know, can be a very painful procedure often requiring an opioid prescription. Luckily for me, the company’s founder, Debbie Durako, had been a speaker at one of my study club events. Knowing I had the graft coming up, I thought I would give her VEGA Oral Care Recovery Kit a chance. The morning after the procedure, the periodontist called to check up on me. He asked if I was in pain and was shocked when I told him that I wasn’t and also did not take any opioids. This was all due to the StellaLife product. I am now proud to do my part in bringing this amazing product to help patients recover more quickly without the need for opioids. During this same time period my relationship with Dental Peeps Network also continued to grow. Given the success of Wizdom and its trajectory, Dental Peeps Network asked me to join their ranks as an Executive Moderator with a coverage territory in the Southeast. I gladly accepted this position and now interact with the great minds across the country in dentistry.
As I look into the future, I will continue to find new ways to keep climbing that ladder—wherever it takes me. I know that I want Wizdom Dental Education to be an invaluable resource in the dental community, and I remain committed to my mission to provide important, interesting, varied CE for people who might not be able to afford it. Bringing lectures and information that I’m passionate about and sharing that information with others in an easy to access format.
I tell this story (well, because I was asked to for one) not to brag or self-aggrandize. I tell it because it is important. Success isn’t a place in which you will someday find yourself. It’s a constant climbing of that ladder. It is improvising and working with what you have to build something a little better than what was there before. And the most important lesson I can pass along is: if I can do it, there are young women in small towns who can do it too.