For the past 22 years, Crystal Spring, RDH, BS, LAP, has been wildly passionate about her work and the dental hygiene profession. Growing up on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Northeastern Montana, Spring noticed early on there was a desperate need for access to care. Living in an impoverished area and watching many of the people she loved struggle financially, emotionally, and physically profoundly impacted her desire to work in public health. In 2014, Spring started her own business working as a dental hygienist in assisted living and skilled nursing facilities. Later that year, she contracted with the Fort Peck Tribes to work in school-based clinics 1 week a month. And in 2017, she joined with another dental hygienist to start the nonprofit organization, Smiles Across Montana (smilesacrossmontana.com), which is dedicated to providing affordable and quality preventive treatment, education, and community outreach. Also passionate about the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA), Spring has enjoyed the support of fellow dental hygiene leaders within the organization that have helped stoke her passion for helping disadvantaged populations access the dental care they desperately need. She is currently an ADHA trustee for District X.
Q How has the experience of growing up on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation influenced your career in public health?
A My experiences have played a big role in the choices I have made and the drive I have for equity in oral health. Once you have seen and experienced the disparity and hopelessness surrounding areas with limited access to care, you cannot unsee them. These experiences have molded me into the person I am, and Fort Peck will always be my home. I am drawn back to the reservation and the culture. It is what I know, and it is where I feel I can make the greatest impact. My hometown is like so many small towns in America, but undeniably different in its sense of community and devotion to its people. Rich in cultural and spiritual values, it has left an imprint on my heart that inspires me to fight for equality, to serve the underserved, and to use my voice for those whose voices have been silenced. Most of my dearest friends, mentors, and many family members are Native American. I have watched the difficulties so many of my loved ones have experienced, driving hundreds of miles and spending hours on the road to receive not only restorative treatment but also the preventive care that so many of us take for granted.
My journey into public health began with the Special Smiles program (my brother was a Special Olympics athlete) and working in nursing facilities (my first mobile clinic was in the nursing home where my Grandma Harriett had spent the last several years of her life). In 2014, Kenny Smoker with Health Promotion Disease Prevention in Poplar, Montana, shared his vision of school-based clinics with me and there was no turning back. I will never forget the way I felt after my first time working in a school-based clinic. I was overcome with gratitude and pride in my profession, and I knew that I had found my life’s work.
Q What inspired you to start Smiles Across Montana and what work does the organization do?
A I had seen firsthand the positive difference that school-based oral health programs make in the lives of children and the communities they serve. Montana is a geographically vast and rural state. There were so many communities that could benefit from services that school-based oral health programs provide. I partnered with Cara Reck, RDH, who also had a heart for public health, and we started working in Head Start programs using our limited access permit. We worked in this capacity for about 1 year. Our patients were graduating into elementary school and the communities were asking our program to serve their older children also. We then teamed up with Nasim Aleagha, DDS, a pediatric dentist in Bozeman, Montana. The addition of a dentist made it possible for Smiles Across America to serve in schools. We then collaborated with Leslie Hayes, DDS. Hayes’ passion for equity and serving on Native Lands is inspiring to say the least. Kirk Stetson, DDS, joined our team. He served as a dentist in the Air Force and in private practice. His compassion for people and his quiet, humble, and agreeable personality make him a perfect fit.
We have five full-time dental hygienists working for Smiles Across Montana currently and we are planning for more in the near future. COVID-19 has prevented the opening of several clinics throughout our state. The addition of each dental hygienist has upped our game tremendously. Melissa Kjos Peterson, RDH; Julie Baylor, RDH; and Jamie Purcell, RDH, have brought so much knowledge and expertise to our program. We are definitely team driven and supported. I am constantly humbled by the success, and growth of our program.
Smiles Across America is a nonprofit mobile and school-based preventive dental program. We provide preventive dental services (prophylaxis, periodontal therapy, fluoride treatments, sealants, X-rays, exams (tele-dental exams when dentists are not present) community and classroom education, and referrals at no cost to our patients or their families. Continuity of care is the key to success in changing oral health outcomes. Smiles Across Montana partners with local dental offices to assure that each patient is receiving the care they deserve on a consistent basis.
I have always been a bit of a “fairness freak” and my work with Smiles Across America and in public health has enabled me to level the playing field among the underserved. I can honestly say that I LOVE my job. I am so appreciative of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association and its commitment to our profession and to our patients. To everyone who has fought the hard fight, lobbied, and hit the streets breaking down barriers that keep dental hygienists from working to their full scope and education, I cannot thank you enough. Your work has made a difference in the lives of Montana’s children!