LaFayette High School educators believe a new dental science program will give students something to chew on when considering their career paths.

Dr. Mike McCary, a dentist in Walker County for more than 40 years, donated equipment from his practice to former employee Sarah H. Jenkins, now a teacher and career advisor at LaFayette High School, before his death in 2019 to enable her to educate high school students about dentistry.

“Our goal in the CTAE (Career, Technical and Agriculture Education) Department is to help students prepare for life after high school,” Jenkins explained, making the students “Ready for College, Ready for Work and Ready for Life!”

“These courses let them have a glimpse into what jobs after high school may look like,” she said. “Whether they are a part of the entrepreneurship program or construction class, we feel that we have something to offer to every student to help prepare them for life after high school.”

Vocational pathway programs consist of three courses, she said. Students have the opportunity to complete more than one pathway in the four years of high school and get to try out potential career paths before graduating high school.

Some students have expressed interest in the dental science pathway, which teaches the basics of dentistry, because it is a new program, she said. Others are interested in dentistry as a possible profession, she said.

“After completion of this pathway, students will have the basic knowledge that they need to enter the dental field as a dental assistant or office employee,” she said. “This will also prepare them for more intense dental programs like dental hygiene school or even dental school.

“I feel that this is also a good time to explore different career fields without having to spend money or ‘waste time’ taking classes they do not need in college,” she shared.

The program is not connected with Georgia Northwestern Technical College or another school at this time; however, students also have the opportunity to participate in other vocational programs through the Walker Launch program, she said.

“We have had to change our plans and make accommodations for social distancing and additional disinfection when doing labs” because of COVID-19, she said.

Jenkins’ inspiration

Jenkins, then 21, had less than one year of experience and was preparing to get married when she went to work as a hygienist for McCary in 2002. She did not have any family locally, so McCary and his wife, Julie, accepted her as a member of their family, traveling, celebrating, laughing and crying together, she said.

After he retired five years later, she became an adjunct clinical instructor at Chattanooga State while also continuing in private practice as a hygienist.

McCary purchased a franchise of a dental assisting school based out of Atlanta in 2007. At that time she had obtained a B.S. degree from East Tennessee State University, and McCary asked her to be the lead instructor for this program, she explained in a memo to Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines.

“We worked side by side for the next 12 years. I learned a lot about classroom teaching,” she wrote. “I learned even more about compassion for students and how to approach learning, all while continuing to work in private practice.”

After the pair spoke to LaFayette High School students about dental careers in 2015, McCary urged her to consider teaching high school. Later that year she left private practice dentistry and became a paraprofessional at LaFayette High School.

About the donation

Jenkins said her heart broke when McCary contacted her in January 2019 with news of his Stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis.

“I knew from past experience what the outcome would be and I wasn’t ready to face what was ahead,” Jenkins wrote in a recent memo to the Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines. “He asked me to clean out his dental practice and for weeks I poured my tears into cleaning out the office where he lovingly practiced dentistry for the children of Walker County for over 40 years.

“He was adamant that I keep all of the supplies to continue teaching dental assisting. I said that wasn’t necessary, but he insisted. He wanted me to continue sharing my love of dentistry with others.

“We lost him 10 weeks after I received that phone call. I had the privilege of being that last person to be in the office with him. He asked me to take him there for one final look around and that is a day I will never forget,” she wrote.

Jenkins is honored to continue McCary’s legacy of sharing knowledge of the dental profession with others.

McCary left behind his wife, three children and 10 grandchildren. His family has fully supported the donation and is thrilled that the dental science classroom will be dedicated to his honor, Jenkins said.

LaFayette dentists Chip and Ty Levie donated a dental chair, sterilization equipment and other items; Chickamauga dentist Caroline Brown donated a dental chair for use in the lab, she said. The program also received donations from North Georgia School of Dental Assisting.

McCary “is still supporting and doing things for others even in his earthly absence, Jenkins wrote in her memo. “He would be so proud to know that the dental equipment and supplies he left me will be used to educate others at the very school where his children and several of his grandchildren attended.”

Catherine Edgemon is assistant editor for the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga., and the Catoosa County News in Ringgold, Ga.

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