This year’s honoree, Jessica Jean-Burton, has augmented her glittering career in dental hygiene by building a successful nonprofit, Nurturing Smiles, that she’d one day like to make her full-time gig. “It’s a lot,” she says—but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

THERE’S NEVER A good time to get struck by a car. For our 2023 Hygienist of the Year, Jessica Jean-Burton, RDH, PHDHP, MPA, it happened during a rare moment of downtime. It was Christmas last year when the practicing hygienist, founder of the dental nonprofit Nurturing Smiles, mother and wife was finishing some last-minute shopping. A million things were likely running through her mind: strategic planning for her nonprofit, holiday details, maybe some baking. She wasn’t distrac­ted or careless, merely crossing the street in a designated crosswalk. The next thing she knew, she was in the hospital, learning how to walk again.

For most people, an accident like that would be more than enough reason to dwell on their misfortune. Yet Jean-Burton mentions it offhandedly, almost as an afterthought, while describing the timeline of founding Nurturing Smiles. True, there’s a metal rod and some screws holding her leg together these days. She walks with a cane, at least for now. But she quickly changes the subject to how inconvenient the injury was, what with an upcoming event not yet fully fleshed out: a free exam and X-ray event for kids at Temple University in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. “I had to finish planning it from the hospital,” she says. You can’t keep a good woman down.

“Educating means reaching the entire family, and we focus on mothers as the cornerstone of that effort because they’re nurturers, the backbone of families.”

Jean-Burton’s Philadelphia-based organization is dedicated to advancing oral care (and, by extension, whole-body health) for underserved women and children. Yet that’s an oversimplification. Nurturing Smiles ( leverages wide-ranging initiatives to attract clients to its oral care and education events, from book bag giveaways to free student lunches in summer. “Educating means reaching the entire family, and we focus on mothers as the cornerstone of that effort because they’re nurturers, the backbone of families,” she says. “But making inroads requires gaining trust and helping constituents find their own way in.”

For some, that means addressing other needs besides, such as food insecurity. It also means reaching clients wherever they are: schools, clinics, community centers and residential shelters like Mothers’ Home, a partnership that expands the reach of Nurturing Smiles well into the suburbs.

“It’s a lot,” she admits. It is, especially because it often means sacrificing nights and weekends. Nobody said giving back would be easy. Perhaps, though, doing so was never really a choice. Jean-Burton always had a generous spirit. When she was 5 or 6, she dreamed of being a baker, whipping up mini-cakes in mugs in her toy oven. Her love of baking was so well known, the congregation at her church nicknamed her Miss Cake. As much as she loved baking (and eating), and still does, making people happy was the part she enjoyed most.

Not until her teen years, though, did she discover her professional calling. Her parents, immigrants from Haiti, lacked the means for dental care until she was 12, in no small part because they were raising two children of their own, plus three cousins, all in the same household. When she saw a dentist for the first time, it was a life-changing experience: “She was African-American, a solo practitioner just starting out and doing everything in the office herself. It wasn’t only that she looked like me. I had nine cavities, but she didn’t shame me. Instead, she took time to educate both my parents and me. Her bedside manner was remarkable in the sense that she never talked down to me.”

Fast-forward to adulthood, and Jean-Burton has a slew of educational achievements under her belt, including a master’s in public administration with a concentration in nonprofit health care management, and a PHDHP license. Though it has been less than three years since Nurturing Smiles began its journey from idea to reality, it displays remarkable sophistication. Its website imparts a clear picture of the organization’s work, mission and vision. It has a corporate-like structure that’s clearly built to be scaled, with a board of directors and a small but growing team filling roles such as operations mana­ger and head of human resources. Their work has been recognized and honored by both community members and the media, and the group received donations from high-profile companies including Crest, Target and Colgate, as well as the publisher of this magazine, Benco Dental.

Partners for life: Jessica Jean-Burton’s personal and professional lives intertwine, populated over the course of her journey by a special network of volunteers, board members, mentors, teachers and, of course, family. Case in point: her husband, Kenya. “We have known each other since middle school, started dating in high school, went to college together—and after 18 years, he has always been my number one supporter. He is definitely a forever volunteer at Nurturing Smiles.”

That’s not to say Nurturing Smiles was an easy overnight success. Far from it. “I was told to write a business plan. I had no idea where to start,” Jean-Burton remembers. With the help of many friends and mentors, as well as professional nonprofit coach Shalita O’Neale, she got her footing. Disappointingly, many of her cheerleaders never materialized as actual supporters. “Some of the doors I counted on being able to walk through when the time came were closed.” Undeterred, she used her own money to seed these efforts, and still does. And she’s always quick to credit her staff of volunteers, who do the same. “It takes a lot of generosity just to volunteer, but it takes even more commitment to volunteer your time and also fundraise or reach into your own wallet.”

Today, Nurturing Smiles is in phase two of a carefully conceived growth plan; phase four will include the creation of a mobile clinic. Such meticulous planning isn’t only for the sake of the organization but also her mental health: “It makes it manageable to break our goals into chunks.” Still, the self-described introvert says the hard work has been good for her, forcing her out of her comfort zone in more ways than one.

Next up: By the end of 2025, she hopes to make Nurturing Smiles her full-time occupation. Until then, however, Jean-Burton, now expecting a second child, won’t stop spreading her passion. While she looks forward to delegating some responsibilities and spending more time with her husband and son, she knows herself too well to pretend that she’ll ever really slow down. “Standing still drives me insane,” she says. “As long as people keep falling in love with our mission, I’ll keep going.”

Our Hygienist of the Year honor celebrates the distinguished legacy and indispensable contributions of dental hygienists worldwide. Each year, Incisal Edge will shine a spotlight on the inspirational and influential power of hygienists who are changing dentistry for the better and making a positive impact on their communities in unique, noteworthy ways.