By Toni S. Adams, RDH, MA

Wow! Reflections on Receiving the Mentor of the Year Award

July 22, 2009
Toni Adams, a hygienist from Sacramento, reflects on her experience as being named the 2009 Philips Sonicare/RDH magazine Mentor of the Year.

People were waiting for the doors to open to enter a reception that was being held in my honor, including seven family members who had converged from California, North Carolina, and Maryland. Katya, aged 4, spotted my picture on a poster of the April cover of RDH magazine and said, "That’s Grandma Toni! What’s she doing here?" What indeed.

Toni Adams, left, steps up to the podium at the Omni Shoreham in Washington, D.C., during a ceremony at the American Dental Hygienists' Association's annual session. Gail Stoops, right, of Philips Sonicare introduced Adams to the audience.

How did this happen? Actually, what happened? One minute I was minding my own business at home and the next I was hit broadside by a call from Gail Stoops from Philips Sonicare to tell me I had won the award. "I am pleased to tell you that you have been named the Philips Sonicare/RDH magazine 2009 Mentor of the Year," or something like that. I was so flummoxed that I don't remember exactly. Me?! Little ol' me?! I didn’t even know I was nominated. Cathy Seckman, a superb writer and frequent contributor to RDH magazine, wrote the secret nomination letter (see letter of nomination below). The events that followed overwhelmed me. I want to explain a little of the experiences associated with being chosen for this honor, share what I have learned about mentoring, and encourage all of you to honor your own dental hygiene mentors.

It began with that phone call on February 4. What followed can only be described by "Wow!" Wow has been my word since then.

I received a new Sonicare toothbrush in the mail. Wow.

A professional photographer came from Seattle to our home near Sacramento to photograph me for the cover of the April 2009 RDH magazine and Cathy called to interview me for the accompanying story. Wow.

The magazine appeared, and I got phone calls and emails from many good friends as well as from people I had not heard from in years, including classmates from hygiene school (Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California, class of 1973) and others I had known and worked with through the decades. I also heard from several people who I had never met but who wanted to share stories of how they, like me, had suffered debilitating workplace injuries and were facing unplanned retirement. Some asked advice, some just wanted to connect with a colleague who had been through the same experiences. Wow.

I attended the California DHA Annual Session and people introduced me as the Mentor of the Year. Wow.

My family and I converged on Washington, D.C. and the ADHA Annual Session to attend the reception where I was to receive the award. My travel and stay in the hotel were part of the award. I will never forget the Palladium Ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, the nearly 300 guests, the huge bouquet of flowers, and the beautiful crystal award. I tried to read the text in the slide show but I was too busy greeting old and new friends. The food was amazing—prime rib, chocolate fondue, the most enormous prawns I had ever seen, and many other delicacies. It was first class all the way. Then people began to speak, Craig Dickson, publisher of RDH magazine; Dr. Joe Blaes, editor of Dental Economics; Gail Stoops, past president of ADHA and speaker extraordinaire; my dear friend Cate Grater who came from Canada; and Esther Wilkins! Yes, THE Esther Wilkins, the person so many of us idolize from afar, the person who wrote the textbook that I used in hygiene school, the mentor’s mentor. I was overwhelmed by all of it. Wow.

After the reception I received the trophy, the poster of the cover of RDH magazine, and a CD full of professional photographs of the event. Wow.

Now my husband and I must decide where to put the Philips flat-screen television that is part of my prize and that will be delivered any day now. Wow.

I also look forward to the PennWell RDH Under One Roof conference in Las Vegas. Registration was also a part of my award. Wow, WOW, WOW!

There have been many other “wows” between these highlights, and each one has prompted reflection about what a mentor is and how I came to receive this honor. I first learned about mentoring from my parents, who still mentor me as I enter my 65th year. My husband has been my best friend and constant mentor for over 40 years. I have had some excellent teachers and professors and friends who mentored me in other ways.

I had always thought of mentors as role models in high positions or long-time relationships, yet I had known Cathy for only a few years and met her in person only a few times at the RDH Under One Roof conferences. We originally “met” through Amy’s List, a phenomenal dental hygiene email community founded by Amy Nieves, and exchanged emails and phone calls and shared knowledge and experiences as friends do. That is how I thought of our relationship, as a treasured friendship. I did not think of it as mentoring. During the same years I also contributed to Amy’s List whenever I thought that I had something to share and developed other friendships as well. Again, I did not think of this as mentoring, but I eventually learned that others did. So I have gained several lessons from having been honored as the Mentor of the Year and have developed a new view of mentoring.

  1. A mentor can be anyone who has a positive influence over a long or short period of time. The mentor can be older or younger than you. Chances are that all of you have mentored another person at some time or other, whether you know it or not.
  2. A mentoring relationship is by invitation only. If you want a person to mentor you then issue the invitation. If you want to be a mentor, you must wait for the honor of being invited, but in the meantime be a good friend and offer to help when you can.
  3. Messages sent to a dental hygiene listserv can be powerful. Even when no one responds to a message you never know how many may have read it and taken it to heart, so it is important to consider what you "say" online. You could be mentoring at any time.
  4. If you are a mentor, be grateful for the opportunity and the privilege. It is not often that people actually ask for your opinion and listen as you give it.
  5. If you have a mentor, say "Thank you." Let the person know how influential s/he is.

The best way I can think of to thank a dental hygiene mentor is to nominate her/him for the Mentor of the Year award. Write a letter from your heart. If your nominee does not win the award, the person will still be deeply honored by your effort. If your nominee does win, s/he will be treated to an experience that cannot be described. Either way, you both win.

As the reception at the Omni Shoreham drew to a close, Katya said to me, "I want to stay at your party forever, and ever, and ever!" I replied, "Me, too." In a way, I can always return to that reception and the experience through the photos, the amazing memories, and the deep gratitude that I feel for having been nominated and chosen. I urge you to treat someone else to that experience. Nominate your dental hygiene mentor for this award.

To nominate a mentor for the 2010 Mentor of the Year award (deadline is September 26, 2009)
go to This link is the entry form for the award.

To join Amy’s List dental hygiene email community go to

Toni S. Adams, RDH, MA, specializes in communication issues in dentistry, including intercultural communication, nonverbal communication, listening, health literacy, caring for LEP (Limited English Proficient) people, and working with interpreters, and others. She has won awards for writing, speaking, scholarship, leadership, and mentorship; has written for various publications; taught college-level public speaking courses; presented scholarly papers at communication conventions; and completed original research into the role of culture in dental hygiene care. She currently serves on the editorial board of the California DHA Journal and is a member of the Phi Kappa Phi national academic honor society, among other responsibilities. Toni wrote a communication handbook for dental hygienists and is in the process of finding a publisher. She welcomes questions and comments at [email protected].

Cathy Seckman’s nomination of Adams for the Philips Sonicare/RDH Mentor of the Year Award.

"I write to nominate Toni Adams, RDH, BA, and soon to be MA, for the 2009 Phillips Sonicare Mentor of the Year Award. I’ve counted Toni as one of my best friends and mentors in hygiene since we met at an Under One Roof conference four years ago. Though we’ve only seen each other in person a few times, we e-mail and speak on the phone regularly. She has been my coach, compatriot, cheerleader, commiserator, and congratulator.

"I’m at the beginning of a new career as a provider of continuing education for hygienists, and Toni's advice has been valued and welcomed. She continually challenges my preconceptions, not only in speaking, but in practicing – not only in dentistry, but in daily life. As a health communications scholar, Toni has insights few of us can match. Do I wonder how to handle my boss? I ask Toni. Can I decide how to converse with a program chairman about a speech? Toni will know. Is there a better way to handle a fellow committee member? Of course, talk to Toni about it.

"Let me tell you about Toni’s dedication to dental hygiene. After a career as a flight attendant, Toni attended Foothill College to study dental hygiene. She practiced in California for 26 years, then was forced to retire because of repetitive stress injury. That didn't stop her from contributing to the dental hygiene profession, it only opened a new chapter. She is a firm believer in the value of education, and all her efforts since retirement from clinical work have been aimed toward bettering fellow hygienists and the dental profession.

"Toni is still an active member of her local ADHA component, and she still earns more than the required number of continuing education credits each year. She loves to attend conference and trade shows. Besides networking with other hygienists, her favorite part of a conference is seeing new products and talking to sales reps.

"Toni earned a bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies from San Jose State University in 2001, with a focus on intercultural health communication. Her master’s degree from California State University will be in Health Communication, Instructional Communication, and Intercultural Communication. As part of that work, she is writing a book titled 'Communication Handbook for Dental Hygienists.' I’ve read sections of the book, and I believe it should be required reading for every hygienist, whether a student or a 30-year veteran.

"As a speaker on communications topics, Toni has influenced dental hygienists all over the country. She offers two courses, The Tap Dance of Communication: Nonverbal Communication in the Dental Office and Becoming Cultured: Understanding a Variety of Values, Views, and Voices. Toni also writes on communications topics, and offers in-office training.

"Though she can no longer work clinically, Toni has refused to give up on dental hygiene. She is still, and will continue to be, a major contributor to the profession. I am honored to be her friend, and to consider her my mentor. I hope you will consider her as a Mentor of the Year."

-- Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH