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Dental professionals go grassroots

There was a time not long ago when Vermont dental professionals began to feel as if the rug were being pulled out from under them. Hygienists, crucial team members in most dental practices, were in short supply, and the state's only training program for hygienists was about to be terminated. "The University of Vermont was ending all of its two-year degree programs," explains Peter Taylor, executive director of the Vermont State Dental Society. "The Society said, ‘We have to keep a program in Vermont,' and the Dental Hygienists Association agreed."

The UVM associate's degree program found a new home at Vermont Technical College in Randolph, but the dental community remained concerned; a successful program would require 1) a clinic in Chittenden County to provide an adequate population of patients and students; and 2) scholarships, because both tuition and equipment for this specialized degree are costly.

The challenge was great, but the vision was clear, so Vermont's dentistry community coalesced into a grassroots fundraising machine.

One of the first steps taken by Taylor and Burlington dentist Paul Averill (thenchair of the Society's board) was to recruit Chuck and Susan Hill, whose Hill Family Scholarships became a banner for the cause. Their participation was meaningful because Chuck had directed the UVM program for 30 years, while Susan, a hygienist, had taught there nearly as long. Though retired, they were highly respected in the field.

The next step involved the formation of a committee of dentists and dental hygienists to oversee and maintain the program. This group hired a development–consulting organization, insurer Delta Dental kicked in the first major corporate donation, and their connections grew, as did their aspirations. Chuck Hill recalls, "Peter announced that we were going to raise a half-million dollars!" Their consultants responded by telling them that they would need 20 people — dentists, hygienists, friends, and former students — all trained to solicit donations. It was an unlikely scenario, but it materialized. "When the clinic opened in 2005, the money was there," says Taylor.

This group of professionals then turned to other professionals — VSAC's Vermont Scholarship Fund — to manage the Hill Family Scholarships for dental hygiene education, which can be used in or outside of Vermont.

"We get a lot of nontraditional students," says Susan Hill, "middle-aged people reinventing their careers." There's also a clinic serving needy patients at a discounted rate.

For Vermont, it's a real bargain.