By Celeste Terry, RDH, BS
Louisiana Dental Hygienist Liaison
September 14, 2023
As dental hygienists, we understand that promoting oral health and preventing oral disease are essential to ensuring oral health and overall health. The National Center on Health, Behavioral Health, and Safety (NCHBHS) works in partnership with the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) on the Dental Hygienist Liaison (DHL) Project to spread education and awareness of the importance of oral health during pregnancy and early childhood.
Under the DHL project, one dental hygienist from each state volunteers to help promote oral health for pregnant women and children enrolled in Head Start programs. These federally funded programs provide services to support the mental, social and emotional development of children in vulnerable communities, from birth to age 5. In addition to education services, programs provide children and their families with health, nutrition, social and other services.
Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to join forces with numerous individuals and organizations, working collectively to improve population-based oral health outcomes. The Louisiana Oral Health Coalition was my initial encounter with the DHL Project, that lead to me agreeing to serve as the Louisiana DHL. I welcomed the role as another avenue to reach more people with oral health messages and access to much-needed oral care.
Through my experience as a program coordinator with EXCELth, Inc., a federally qualified health center in Louisiana, I witnessed firsthand the importance of prevention and early detection in maintaining good oral health. Access to dental care alone is not enough to improve overall oral health outcomes. Communities can make better decisions if they are knowledgeable that prevention and early detection are just as important. As the Louisiana DHL, I often use resources supplied by the NCHBHS to address the importance of oral health basics and nutrition when promoting oral health.
I truly value my role as Louisiana’s DHL. The experience has taught me so much and expanded my world through networking with fellow DHLs. Being part of a larger mission to make a difference, to improve oral health outcomes and share trusted information with Head Start programs, staff and families in my state has given me a sense of purpose that is unmatched.
Improving oral health has always been at the center of my efforts. Volunteering in the DHL role allows me to sit at different tables where I can raise awareness of the current state of oral health and share effective strategies to change the tide with a focus on prevention, education, and access. After developing confidence in my role, I began presenting at conferences, served on health service advisory committees, and connected several Head Start programs directly with dental care. I communicate often with the director of the Head Start Collaboration Office, bringing like-minded professionals together to discuss common concerns and possible solutions. Actionable outcomes often develop in sub-committees or even in one-on-one conversations. That’s where the wheels start turning, ideas begin flowing, and action happens.
But successful outcomes and results don’t happen overnight. It takes time and a lot of small steps to go a long way. Each invitation to participate in an event with Head Start programs helps to deepen relationships and build trust. My involvement has broadened community-wide collaborations with the State Head Start Collaboration Office, Louisiana Child Care Health Consultants, Head Start and Early Head Start Programs and the State Oral Health Department. As a DHL, I have worked with childcare centers, Head Start Collaboration Office, the State Oral Health Program, Louisiana Department of Education, Head Start and Early Head Start Programs across the State.
Parents and teachers learned about oral health, corona virus and children’s oral care through conversations and brochures like “Brush, Book, Bed”. Flavored water recipes, sugarless mints, oral hygiene supplies and information were distributed at the West Feliciana Head Start Community Resource Fair.
These collaborations have been instrumental in connecting those Head Start programs in need of dentists and dental hygienists to care for children and expectant families with dental provider directories, helpful infographics from the Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center Oral Health | ECLKC (hhs.gov), and donations of toothbrushes and other oral hygiene supplies to help bridge the access gap.
Being a DHL means I can confidently share trusted, accurate oral health information and strategies to improve oral health for infants, young children, and pregnant women. It’s truly been a privilege and a joy to meet new colleagues and friends working in childcare centers across Louisiana, and I am grateful for the ongoing opportunities to learn best practices from other DHLs on our regional calls and quarterly webinars.
As a dental hygienist at EXCELth, Inc. my work includes participation in community health fairs, providing patient care, coordinating school sealant programs, and performing outreach activities for our mobile dental unit. I am proud of how supportive EXCELth is of community involvement opportunities and events such as health fairs with Head Start where I provide dental screenings. It’s because of this trusted relationship and ongoing involvement that we established a formal agreement between our center and the Head Start centers to provide preventive oral health care via our mobile dental unit for children without dental homes. Follow-up care addressing dental caries is performed in our fixed locations.
My dental hygienist liaison journey has been incredibly rewarding. It has been a journey of immeasurable growth, endless opportunities, and new and lasting acquaintances and friendships. I have met other compassionate dental hygienists working as DHLs in their states. Serving as DHL means I am also a proud member of the ADHA. I have attended annual conferences and met many DHLs at those events in person for the first time. We are fortunate to have this connection as oral health community educators and to spend time together sharing our experiences. I especially love attending sessions presented by other DHLs to learn about and applaud their outreach work. Our inspiring DHL leaders are active listeners and go above and beyond to ensure we have what we need to accomplish the tasks before us in our states I am grateful to all the DHL regional coordinators, health specialists, and national project leads for their guidance.
I hope my story has demonstrated that the DHL Project benefits not only Head Start programs and the families they serve, but also impacts how and where we as dental hygienists can show up and give back. It means being a part of something rewarding that is bigger than ourselves and getting the job done on a larger scale. I am so proud to be a DHL. I am so glad I said yes and volunteered as DHL for Louisiana.
Celeste Terry, RDH, BS, is a practicing dental hygienist in New Orleans, long-time ADHA member and has served as the Louisiana Head Start Dental Hygienist Liaison since 2013. She has worked in public health throughout her career. Her expertise as a DHL has resulted in her stepping into other roles with her employer, community partners, advocacy, and national organizations committed to addressing oral health access and equity. She has been recognized for her work with awards from NDA Health Now (2023) and Sunstar Award of Distinction (2011). She extends her thanks to ADHA for this platform to explain how she serves children, families, and staff in Head Start and childcare programs. Celeste can be reached at [email protected].