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Brighter Smiles, Brighter Futures

2014-09-03 - Bay Area - Brighter Smiles, Brighter Futures

Tonimarie DeGennaro, left, explains the different stages of tooth decay as Melanie Taylor (seated) and fellow incoming dental assistant students look on during the first day of class. Credit: Carlos Rodriguez

The program means everything to me and my family.

When Melanie and Airman First Class Christian Taylor moved to Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, it was the young couple’s first time away from their Florida home. While Christian stayed busy working as a physical therapy assistant at the base hospital, the initial seven months at Travis were especially hard for Melanie as she missed her friends and family back home, wanted to start a career, and struggled to find her place in life.

About six months earlier, Chelsea and Senior Airman Justin Devine found themselves in similar circumstances. Chelsea, a young wife and mother from North Carolina, searched for an identity outside the household. Though happy with the joys and challenges of marriage and motherhood, she knew she wanted more. She began the journey toward a more promising future when she enrolled as a student in the base’s dental assistant program.

The United States Air Force 60th Dental Squadron and the American Red Cross jointly run the volunteer program, and have done so intermittently since the mid-1960s. It’s an opportunity for military spouses and dependents (mostly women) to learn a new career in the dental field. The program consists of 800 hours of classroom and clinical training and the students receive a certificate when they complete the program. While the six month training is free, the students solely rely on their spouse’s income to cover the cost of childcare and other household expenses while they commit exclusively to the program.

The military benefits from the program, too. When the military’s enlisted dental assistants are pulled away from patient care, it’s the dental assistant students who fill the gaps. Over the past year, the last two graduating classes combined have volunteered 7,719 hours, seated 5,861 patients, assisted with 13,809 procedures, and saved the federal government more than $1.4 million.

Chelsea completed the program in July. Along with her graduating classmates Mistina Day from Indiana, Svetlana Confrancesco from Russia, and Leah Munyiri from Kenya, Chelsea can’t wait to find a job. With newly-minted, high-demand skills that travel well to new duty stations, the four military spouses hope to contribute additional income to their respective households after months of study and hard work as volunteers.

“I loved everything about the program,” said Chelsea. “It helped me figure out who I was after being just a mom for two years.”

Joan Kelley-Williams, Service to the Armed Forces Director for the Bay Area Chapter, is not surprised by how much these young women grow in such a short period of time.

“The quiet ones come out of their shell,” Joan said. “The more outspoken ones learn to work together and they all gain confidence in themselves and carry that confidence back to their homes.”

A week before completing the program, the graduates offered words of advice to the incoming students on their first day of class. Melanie, along with four other women in the incoming class, can’t wait to learn more.

“The program means everything to me and my family,” Melanie said. “It’s the start of my career. I want to make my husband proud and I want the children [we will one day have] to be proud of me, too.”