FOR AS LONG AS she can remember, Wendy Edens wanted to “help people have a healthy smile,” she says, and for her that meant pursuing a career in dental hygiene. This May, after some fitful progress, Edens (along with 18 others) was a proud part of Hagerstown Community College’s inaugural class of hygiene graduates.

Maryland has seven dental-hygiene programs overall, five of which are in metropolitan Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The ones at Hagerstown CC and Allegany College, in Cumberland, are located in the rural, less-populated northwestern portion of the state. Edens, 44 years old and a mother of three, initially attended Allegany, but the three-hour commute from Hagerstown to Cumberland and back became too much to manage. In 2013, news that Hagerstown CC was starting a hygiene program spurred her to apply, a decision she hasn’t regretted a bit.

“It’s an amazing program,” Edens says. “The instructors go above and beyond, spending extra time with you in the clinic if there’s something you don’t understand.”

Before the school could bring on students, though, or faculty to spend extra time with them, years of preparation laid the foundation. The primary impetus for the hygiene addition was area dentists (in Pennsylvania and West Virginia in addition to Maryland) who had existing relationships with Hagerstown CC through its dental-assistant program. These doctors hoped to bring more preventive care to rural populations nearby, but there simply weren’t enough credentialed hygienists to make it feasible. “We really need hygienists for patients in this area,” says Angela Stoops, Hagerstown CC’s director of health sciences. “A lot of treatment isn’t given because of lack of access.”

Until Hagerstown’s program emerged, most hygienists trained in the Old Line State stayed in the communities in which their schools were situated. An initial assessment by Hagerstown CC in 2010 found that, like Wendy Edens, many people wanted to become hygienists but lived too far from the nearest program.

Stoops got to work. By 2011, she and her colleagues had designed a curriculum and presented it to the state; they also completed an application for the Commission for Dental Accreditation in Chicago. “Any project of that magnitude is fraught with challenges,” Stoops says. “You just keep plugging along.”

Once the curriculum was approved and accreditation secured, the truly hard work began: finding instructors, determining how best to reach out to and attract potential students and, of course, building a facility in which to educate them. This last step, Stoops says, would have been impossible without the support of Steve Caler, a Benco Dental territory sales consultant based in Hanover, Pennsylvania, some 50 miles northeast of Hagerstown. Caler had worked with the community college for years, helping it procure equipment for its dental-assistant program, but his involvement only grew once plans for the hygiene unit solidified. He also drew on the expertise of CenterPoint Dental Designer Paul Staritz.

HANDS ON: Monitored by an instructor, a Hagerstown hygiene student tends to a classmate.

HANDS ON: Monitored by an instructor, a Hagerstown hygiene student tends to a classmate.

Marlaina Lantzy, the hygiene program’s coordinator, was hired less than a month before the first class of students was due to start in August 2014. “Benco has been a lifesaver,” she says. “We built a new clinic, and it’s kind of like moving into a new house — you don’t know where everything goes until you’ve lived in it for a while, and you don’t know where the kinks are until you find them.”

SEAT YOURSELVES: Hagerstown Community College’s dental lab

SEAT YOURSELVES: Hagerstown Community College’s dental lab

Caler worked with Lantzy and Stoops to complete projects large and small alike: getting laptops working, ordering bracket trays, finding a local practice willing to donate an X-ray machine. Stoops exults over the partnership: “I’ve never worked with a vendor who has done so much for us.”

Hagerstown has a fully operational clinic that caters to the local community; many of its patients are uninsured or carry only Medicaid. Two dentists on staff at the community college work with local providers on referrals, but students offer many local residents much-needed low-cost preventive services. (A routine adult cleaning at the school’s clinic costs $23.)

One problem that Wendy Edens and her classmates faced from the outset was the lack of an existing patient base. “Hygiene programs that have been around for 30 years have established a patient pool, and you continually pull those patients back every six months to have their teeth cleaned,” Edens says. “But when we started, there was no one.”

Students were therefore required to drum up a patient log; Edens’s ebullient personality, she acknowledges, helped her recruitment efforts. Those patients have now been passed along to the next class, helping to build that base — providing critical oral-health care while helping root the new hygiene program in the surrounding community.

Those roots were nonexistent even a decade ago. Now Hagerstown CC’s hygiene program has 40 students enrolled, and its prospects are bright. “Our students are happy, and the faculty is amazing,” Lantzy says. “Our success rate is really good, especially being a brand-new program and getting everything up and running.” To wit: All 19 graduates in Hagerstown’s initial hygiene class passed their boards, and within two months nearly all had secured jobs. That’s great news for them, for the community and for the larger cause of dental education (and health) in Maryland.

Dental Design: Paul Staritz, Benco Dental CenterPoint Design Equipment Specialist: Brian Frederick, Benco Dental Friendly Benco Rep: Steve Caler