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Celebrating 20 years of recognizing dental hygiene’s finest with the 2021 Sunstar/RDH Award of Distinction

Sept. 18, 2021
Sunstar and RDH magazine recognize four outstanding dental hygienists making a difference in their communities, in education, and in the profession. Read the stories of the four recipients of the 2021 Sunstar/RDH Award of Distinction.

Every dental hygienist who dons personal protective equipment and treats patients during a pandemic deserves an award of appreciation. But there is another award that only a select few hygienists receive each year. The 2021 Sunstar/RDH Award of Distinction is adding four new members to this prestigious group of dental professionals, bringing the total to 133 since its inception in 2002. The four recipients were chosen by a panel of judges coordinated by Sunstar Americas and RDH magazine. They are selected for their success in promoting positive change in education, private practice, and community service.

RDH magazine and Sunstar are proud to recognize the individuals who have embraced their passions, focused on their goals, and made a significant difference in many lives across the country,” said Jackie Sanders, MBA, RDH, chief editor of RDH magazine. “Each year the recipients lead by example and influence the dreams of many dental hygienists.”

Jeannette Diaz, Whitney Rose DiFoggio, Elmer E. González, and Noel Slotke Paschke were recognized for their service to dentistry and their communities at the awards ceremony at RDH Under One Roof at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis on July 23.

This year marks 20 years of recognition of these outstanding dental hygienists who are making positive contributions to their patients, education, their communities, and the profession. Congratulations to the winners of the 2021 Sunstar/RDH Award of Distinction! Celebrate with us!

Jeannette Diaz, MS, RDH, RDHAP

(Newport Beach, California)

Jeannette Diaz’s proudest accomplishment is the establishment of her independently owned dental hygiene practice. But this was no easy feat. Not only did she have to overcome her fear of starting her own business, but she also did this while enrolled in dual master’s programs. Her goals in opening her own practice were to serve her community and also to motivate others who might be thinking about starting their own practices. She believes it should be the standard of care in all states for hygienists to be able to provide dental care to the underserved.

Diaz is a first-generation college graduate and a registered dental hygienist in alternative practice, or RDHAP. She has been practicing dental hygiene for 14 years. Her portable RDHAP dental hygiene practice provides dental hygiene care to seniors and patients with special needs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Diaz also reached out to local schools to provide virtual dental health education to Head Start and elementary school-aged children. She was able to discuss issues related to dental hygienists and patient safety during the early part of the pandemic via a local news channel.

After witnessing the oral health disparities in her community, Diaz determined to become an oral health advocate. As a bilingual speaker of English and Spanish, she is able to connect with patients no matter the language or cultural differences. She listens carefully to her patients in an attempt to understand them and their needs. Coaching patients with extreme dental fear and then seeing them become regular dental patients fills Diaz with gratitude for the opportunity to help. She creates awareness in her patients of the oral-systemic link by collaborating with other nondental health-care providers.

Diaz believes there is power in uplifting others and is grateful to have the opportunity to mentor other RDHs and RDHAPs to go out into their own communities. In partnership with another hygienist and the Rotary Club, she has worked at elementary schools for several years to provide education and fluoride varnish. She also was awarded a grant to provide oral health education and fluoride varnish to teen parents and their children.

Diaz assists not only her own patients in living a healthier life, but also her community. She is persistent in reaching out to stakeholders in the community to have meaningful conversations and create partnerships. She understands the importance of fostering community through involvement with organizations such as the local YMCA during health fair events. Diaz has also been able to positively impact her community through leadership positions in dental hygiene associations on the local, state, and national levels.

However, she is not afraid to step outside of her own community to go where help is needed. She has volunteered in dental clinics in the Los Angeles area and in Mexico, where she delivered dental hygiene services to children and their parents.

Diaz currently works for the state of California as a dental liaison for the Department of Developmental Services in the Office of Statewide Clinical Services in the Clinical Services Branch. There are only two hygienists in this brand-new role. She continues her RDHAP portable work on weekends or after work in the evenings.

Diaz will complete a master’s in public health at the end of the summer semester. She received the President’s Commitment to Diversity Award from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and was inducted into the Alpha Eta Allied Health Honor Society in 2020. Her thesis research focuses on the experiences of men in dental hygiene, a topic she feels needs attention. The qualitative portion will be published in the Journal of Dental Hygiene in the fall of 2021, and she is currently completing a manuscript for the quantitative study.

Congratulations, Jeannette Diaz!

Whitney Rose DiFoggio, BS, RDH

(Tinley Park, Illionis)

The first time she heard a patient say, “Wow, thank you for not judging me,” Whitney DiFoggio knew she needed to do more. She wanted to make all patients feel calm and comfortable in a nonjudgmental way. If she could impact patients one-on-one in the operatory, why not expand that judgment-free zone into her community?

That is exactly what DiFoggio did. She started with a YouTube channel, Teeth Talk Girl. Here, people can view free dental health videos with subjects such as how to brush and floss properly, how not to gag during dental x-rays, explanations of probing measurements, oral cancer screenings, night guards, gum recession, and so much more. Each week, DiFoggio releases two videos that are always available and never go away. Her educational videos help patients feel more comfortable with stressful and confusing subjects, and they also help clinicians explain these subjects to their patients.

DiFoggio has continued to build her Teeth Talk Girl platform, adding free dental health articles. Her goal is to educate patients and encourage them to visit their dental office regularly to maintain or improve oral health. Her easygoing and nonjudgmental attitude puts patients at ease—both her own patients and those who watch her videos before going to their dentists. It gives DiFoggio great joy to know that she has connected with a community of people she has never met.

All hygienists are familiar with patients who apologize for the condition of their teeth and are embarrassed to open their mouths, even in the dental office. One way that DiFoggio helps put these patients at ease is to refer them to her videos. For some, it is less stressful to watch a video of a specific concern than it is to discuss it in person with their dental providers. She tells the story of a patient who was very embarrassed about her bad breath. The patient’s husband was in the next operatory, so she spoke in whispers about her concern. DiFoggio directed the patient to her bad breath video on The patient was relieved to be directed to a resource that she could access in privacy.

DiFoggio’s newest project is called Happy Teeth. This is a purses and bags company that she launched in 2020. For each item purchased, a dental health kit is donated to someone in need. Each dental health kit contains a one-year supply of toothbrushes, toothpaste, and floss. In addition, DiFoggio organizes a dental health presentation in which she delivers a workshop explaining how to properly use everything in the kit, as well as basic oral hygiene tips and recommendations for home care, to the organizations receiving the kits.

This workshop can be shared with other dental hygienists, dental assistants, dentists, students, and anyone interested, so more than just DiFoggio’s community can benefit from this project. Dental professionals can sign up virtually from anywhere and deliver both the dental health kits and the dental health presentation to organizations in their communities.

The common mission of both Teeth Talk Girl and Happy Teeth is to motivate people to maintain and improve their dental health. The comments on the Teeth Talk Girl articles and videos bring DiFoggio tears of joy daily. She frequently reads comments such as: “I haven’t been to the dentist in more than 10 years, but you’ve made me realize I should schedule an appointment right now, so here I go” and “Thank you for showing me how to floss. I’ve been doing it wrong but now I understand.”

DiFoggios’s dream of providing free, nonjudgmental, dental health information in her community has become reality. But she didn’t realize at the time that her community would expand one day to comprise all those people who view her videos and read her educational articles on Teeth Talk Girl. Nor did she realize that her community would one day include all those in need who benefit from the dental health kits provided through Happy Teeth. That’s one big community!

Congratulations, Whitney DiFoggio!

Elmer E. González, PhD, MBA, RDH

(Las Cruces, New Mexico)

Prior to becoming a dental hygienist, Elmer González worked in a group home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, while pursuing a degree in Spanish. At the group home, he noticed the residents’ poor oral hygiene. After earning his bachelor’s in Spanish with a minor in psychology, and speaking to a cousin in the dental hygiene program, González decided to return to college for a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene.

González went directly into public health when he graduated in 2008, working in a special needs clinic at the University of New Mexico (UNM). One of his biggest achievements at that clinic was collaborating with community agencies to implement oral health programs in local organizations that care for people with disabilities.

However, most of González’s career has been spent in education, teaching dental hygiene students at UNM for seven years and at New Mexico State University–Doña Ana Community College since 2016. While educating future dental hygienists is rewarding in and of itself, González’s accomplishments extend far beyond the classroom. His students are taught the importance of oral health promotion and disease prevention, and then they are sent out into the real world to apply their newly acquired skills in underserved communities in southern Doña Ana County, New Mexico, close to the US-Mexico border.

González has developed and implemented several dental hygiene programs targeting different communities with the main goals of improving oral health, reducing oral disease risk factors such as smoking or vaping, and addressing poor nutrition, lack of access to oral health care, lack of access to oral hygiene education, and the need to incorporate oral health early in the development of children. All of these interventions are free of charge to the communities, so finances are not a barrier to access the services offered.

One of the programs that González has implemented is the first school-based clinic in a public middle school in Las Cruces. He and his students provide free preventive dental hygiene services to all children enrolled at the middle school. Services include dental prophylaxes, sealants, fluoride varnish, oral hygiene instruction, tobacco cessation and vaping education, and nutritional education as related to oral health.

Another of González’s accomplishments is a dental hygiene program at Jardin de los Niños. At this location, free preventive dental hygiene services are offered to children enrolled in the program, and iI serves children from families who are homeless or nearly homeless. Dental exams are also provided at Jardin, and referrals are given to other community dental offices in order to establish dental homes.

A third program provides free preventive dental hygiene services at the Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC)-designated Amador Clinic. Dental hygiene services are provided in collaboration with the community college at no cost to patients. This clinic serves homeless and nearly homeless individuals.

In early spring of 2021, the Dental Hygiene Clinic at Gadsden Campus was established. The goal of this clinic is to provide people from the most southern communities with access to dental hygiene services. These communities are some of the poorest in New Mexico and closest to the US-Mexico border. Pregnant women, children, and students from the southern community college campuses are all encouraged to attend this clinic. All members of these communities are seen at no cost.

As part of his master’s degree thesis, González  developed training for community agencies where he introduced an oral health program to train caregivers so they could provide their clients with proper oral health care. The training also consisted of desensitizing the caregivers of their fears of performing oral hygiene on their clients.

After receiving his master’s degree in dental hygiene, González continued his education, earning two more master’s degrees, in educational psychology and in business administration, as well as a doctorate degree in educational psychology. His greatest satisfaction comes from seeing the impact his efforts have made in improving access to preventive dental hygiene services in communities that could not afford them otherwise, all while providing future hygienists with the skills necessary to make a difference in the oral health and lives of others.

Congratulations, Elmer González!

Noel Slotke Paschke, MS, RDH

(Missoula, Montana)

Noel Paschke knew exactly what she wanted to do when she graduated with her dental hygiene degree in 1977. As a pioneer in the concept of the oral-systemic link, she approached the chairperson of the Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Department at Johns Hopkins Hospital, hoping to make an impact on the lives of immunosuppressed patients. The chairperson declined, stating they didn’t need a dental hygienist. Paschke’s parting request was that when he changed his mind, he would call her first.

Six weeks later, Paschke began working at Hopkins, delivering care and developing protocols for the medical teams for bone marrow transplant and head and neck cancer patients. After completing her master’s degree in adult and continuing education, she was appointed as the first registered dental hygienist to the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. While there, she created a hospital rotation for dental hygiene students from the University of Maryland.

After leaving the hospital, Paschke joined the faculty at the University of Maryland, while working part-time in general and periodontal practice. She brought the innovation from Hopkins to Maryland to use “rounds” like those used in the hospital environment. At the beginning of each clinic session, students presented their patients’ histories and medications as a group. They barely had to study pharmacology for boards, as they had been “living” pharmacology every day in clinic. The students rewarded her with the Teacher of the Year Award in 1994. The University of Maryland Dental School Alumni Association awarded her the inaugural Linda DeVore Dental Hygiene Alumnus Award in 2012.

Paschke continued her path as a pioneer by serving as the sole RDH on the Maryland State Board of Dental Examiners. She was elected as the board’s first RDH and woman to serve as vice president. This position officiated disciplinary actions for dentist and RDH licensees. Working with the state’s attorney general’s office, she instituted a triage system to decrease backlogs and reach resolutions, ultimately increasing better protection of the public. Paschke served as an examiner and assistant chief examiner with the Northeast Regional Board of Dental Examiners for more than 20 years.

Paschke’s entrepreneurial spirit has been demonstrated in product advancements through the patent process. In 2001, she was the primary inventor for Method and apparatus for tooth cleaning using abrasive powders (Jet-Shield) US Patent 6,315,565. In 2009, she was a coinventor of System and method for dynamic control of ultrasonic magnetostrictive dental scaler US Patent 7,614,878. She is currently a coinventor for one provisional patent that is in the process of going to the next level into a utility patent.

Paschke once again pioneered in the dental hygiene profession by choosing a corporate administration path. She directed three international dental companies’ North American educational departments—as the manager of clinical education at Dentsply Preventive Care, senior manager of professional education at Philips Oral Healthcare, and director of education at ACTEON. These positions afforded many opportunities to create curricula that impacted patient outcomes. As the first RDH to hold the position at ACTEON, she hired 125 RDH clinical trainers and created a positive disruption in the dental industry. These clinicians delivered in-office equipment education, ensuring exceptional patient care to improve oral and overall health, as well as creating future career opportunities for RDHs.

Paschke has served on numerous councils and advisory boards, including the American Dental Education Association Corporate Council representing Philips and ACTEON and the ADHA Corporate Council. She was a founding member and on the Executive Advisory Board of the DentalCodeology Consortium (DCC), and a member of the advisory boards of Communicate With Influence, RDH magazine, and most recently, Promethean Dental Systems. Having worked for two leading ultrasonic manufacturing companies, Paschke formed Ultrasonics Plus in 2020 to help clinicians master magnetostrictive and piezoelectric ultrasonic technologies.

In her local community, Paschke serves with her husband as premarriage coaches at their church. For more than 20 years she served as a court-appointed coguardian for her brain-injured brother.

When asked what her proudest achievement was, Paschke responded, “My greatest professional joy has been seeing dental hygiene in the future through the talents of extraordinary dental hygienists. Hiring, training, and supervising three international companies’ education teams has been my career highlight. Recognizing talent before someone even sees it in themselves is so delicious. What an honor to be a part of that person’s journey. As I told one person on the Philips team, I guarantee that when I push you off the ledge, you will always land in a higher place.”

Congratulations, Noel Paschke!

Kirsten Brancheau, BA, RDH, has been practicing clinical dental hygiene since 1978. She earned an associate’s degree in applied science in dental hygiene from Union County College in 1977 and a bachelor of arts degree in English literature from Montclair State University in 1988. She is a member of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association. Brancheau is also a freelance proofreader, editor, and writer. She can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Kirsten Brancheau, BA, RDH

Kirsten Brancheau, BA, RDH, has been practicing clinical dental hygiene since 1978. She earned an associate’s degree in applied science in dental hygiene from Union County College in 1977 and a bachelor of arts degree in English literature from Montclair State University in 1988. She is a member of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association. Brancheau is also a freelance proofreader, editor, and writer. She can be reached at [email protected].