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The Inspirational Woman Behind: #BrownGirlRDH

@BrowngirlRDH wearing #SCRUBSbyDHN

Hi there! My name is Martelle, also known as BrownGirlRDH! I want the dental world to read my story and know that if I can get through my distresses, so can all of you! I encourage you all, after reading my story, to realize you can become whatever-type-of-RDH you want to be! After much adversity, hardship and overcoming obstacles, I have come out on top of my dreams and stronger than ever.

This is my story:

I was one of ten children, as the eldest girl in my family I had to take on a lot of responsibility at a young age. My mother would take me out with her to sell drugs or make me stay at home while she did, as the caretaker for my siblings. To put this into perspective, I was cooking for the entire family at 10 years old, braiding hair for money and often knocking on the neighbor’s doors for food.  I remember my mother being pregnant and literally crying because I knew I was going to be another new mother, as I would have to take this child in as my own. I was in the 7th grade when my youngest sister was born. When my mom returned from the hospital with her, she was brought directly into my bedroom that I shared with 3 other siblings. I was up at 3am, as a 10-year-old, on a school night making a bottle for a newborn baby that was not mine. I was pushing her around the house in a stroller, trying desperately to get her to stop crying so that I could go to sleep for school that morning, all while my mom and her husband slept soundly in the other room. School for me was an escape from reality, a place I could go with no responsibility but to learn.

I graduated high school and I made my way into college. Going to college was never discussed or expected growing up. None of my family members attended college, they were either criminals or on welfare. Statistically, I should have been too. I had four different fathers growing up with no future, multiple children, which none were my own until a few months after high school graduation, my first semester of college. I ended up getting pregnant. I hid my pregnancy for the longest time because I knew I was going to get kicked out of the house if my mother found out the news.

I was in my first trimester of pregnancy working full time at BestBuy while pursuing dental hygiene at the local community college. I remember I was always tired and constantly felt drained.  One afternoon while taking a well-deserved nap, I was woken by my stepdad and was told to get up, go outside and help do yard work. I had absolutely no energy, so I refused to do so as my body would not let me even if I wanted to.

Shortly after he went into the kitchen where my mother was and told her that I refused to help. He then came back into my bedroom and ordered me to get out of his house. The entire time, my mother sat at the kitchen table and said nothing. I did as he said…I gathered my belongings, placed it on the table in front of my mother and left. I had nowhere to go, I was 18, pregnant and homeless. I lived out of my car and sometimes stayed in my boyfriend’s dorm room. That summer, my boyfriend dropped out of college, got a job and moved us to New York to live with his family. During my entire pregnancy, I was alone. I had no family support at all. I didn’t even have a baby shower where I could have received some items and guidance to help prepare to be a mom. Two days after my 19th birthday, I gave birth to a 7lb baby girl named London. Shortly after having her, I had two seizures which, prior to that, I had never had a history of. With no family support and being as young as I was, I was pushed along and treated for epilepsy long term. I was prescribed Dilantin (a medication for seizures) and told not to drive, cook, be alone with my baby or anything that could result in injury. I was a zombie. I was trapped in a dark place that I wanted out of. I knew I didn’t have anyone to take care of me or my newborn so one day I decided to take back my life, stop taking the seizure medication and finish pursuing Dental Hygiene School.

Once I got back to being myself, I called the local Dental Hygiene School in New York, desperately hoping to pursue my dream of Dental Hygiene. I explained I had a baby and was told because of that, I should try the Dental Assisting Program instead. I applied and successfully completed the one-year certificate program. The dentist I worked for was mean to me, and for no real reason, treated the hygienist better. I would always ask the hygienist about the program and inquire about what I needed to do to get to the point of RDH. They were discouraging, to say the least, but then again…I never had any support to begin with, so I thought what the heck - I’m going to apply anyway! After applying, I got in! I received my acceptance letter without being waitlisted. Once I received the letter, I was quickly disappointed as the contents were yet another roadblock. I needed an instrument kit, which was $1000, and uniforms that would could around $300. I needed both these things, on top of general school supplies, by orientation. It certainly did not help that the acceptance letter stated I’d not be able to work while in school.

I decided I could not afford it, especially with little to no support. I made the decision not to attend. I spoke of my disappointment to my friend who insisted that I could get student loans to help pay for the equipment as well as living expenses. Being a first-generation college student, I had no idea about student loans! Again, not letting my obstacles stop me, I took her advice and applied for student loans. Those loans allowed me to complete the program and attain my degree as a Registered Dental Hygienist! I was the only one out of my entire family to go to college and I barely made it because of my lack of support, knowledge, and resources.

Ten years later, I decided to go back and pursue dental school. I was juggling my three kids, my job and going back to school. I was ready to overcome more odds, until November 19, 2018, when my 23-year-old brothers son, my nephew Rafeek (meaning ‘good friend’), was killed. He was five months old when he died. The state took my brothers remaining two children, 2 and 3 at the time, away from him after this happened. I was the first person he called when he found out and instead of letting the children go to foster care, I felt that it was my responsibility to take them in. I didn’t know how I was going to do it and found myself struggling with five kids and no support from my family. My nieces and nephew were placed with me and the state only funded daycare while I was working and in school. Working full time, going to school, caring for three toddlers and two elementary school children was becoming too much. With nowhere to turn and no one to help, I went into depression. I felt just as I did many times before in life; I quit my job, dropped out of school and did a lot of reflecting about who I am and why.

Now, just over a year later, I remain successful in my career…but I still feel like I have no support and most importantly…no one to relate to what I am going through. That is why I decided to start the organization BrownGirl, RDH. BrownGirl, RDH is a non-profit organization representing the ‘underrepresented Dental Hygienist,’ while promoting cultural diversity. We serve as an advocate for Registered Dental Hygienists and students; working for a healthier diverse climate. We also help hygiene students by mentoring and providing financial support outside of tuition costs; covering clinical supplies, equipment, and board fees. The mission is to shift the mindset about who can work in the dental hygiene field, remove cultural and economic barriers to joining the dental hygiene workforce, establish and promote pathways to dental careers.

We always need support, even if there is nothing else. See, my friend that gave me advice on student loans and pushed me to accept my offer letter was my "BrownGirl, RDH." I am my niece and nephews "BrownGirl, RDH." The goal is to increase cultural diversity in the dental hygiene workforce and to provide financial support for dental hygienists and dental hygiene students that come from backgrounds such as my own. We achieve this by building a community with relationships because I am Rafeek, a “good friend,” I am BrownGirl, RDH!




Kesha Jackson

I really appreciate your inspiration. You’re a strong person. I’m willing to support in any way that I can, for I was a single mom as well while attending dental hygiene school. With GOD all things are possible.

Alicia M.

Keep going Martelle, you’re an inspiration to so many!


Absolutely inspirational and brought me to tears. I am so glad I took the time to read your story’s
Melba Y. Smith, RDH


Really, really inspirational. So glad I “swiped up” to read your story. You are an incredible woman. I am looking forward to following your journey and helping out in any way I can!

Summer Lewis RDH
Diamond Sharp

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