Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Dental clinic for Afghanistan's poor started by Santa Barbara dentist reopens, after Taliban shutdown

A child receive free dental care in Kabul, Afghanistan thanks to a project founded by a Santa Barbara dentist.
Jay Farbman
Afganistan Dental Relief Project
A child receives free dental care in Kabul, Afghanistan thanks to a project founded by a Santa Barbara dentist.

Program has treated more than 200,000 people since being founded 20 years ago.

Sometimes, good things come in very mysterious, and unexpected ways.

The Taliban government shut down a 20-year-old free dental care program for the poor created by a Santa Barbara dentist. But, a California dental school’s decision to honor the dentist for his efforts set the stage for the desperately needed program to reopen this week.

The story starts in 2003. Santa Barbara dentist James Rolfe became so concerned about what happened to Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. invasion, so he decided to pack up a portable dental kit to see what he could do to help.

"I went to a remote province...and I was working on these orphan kids," said Rolfe. "I found that people had seven or eight abscessed teeth, and there was no access to dental care in the entire province. If they wanted to get dental care, they had to go to a barber, and have their tooth taken out with unsterile instruments, and no anesthetics."

The dentist realized the problem was huge. There was virtually no infrastructure to support building a dental clinic. He returned to Santa Barbara, where he came up with a plan.

He took a giant shipping container, and turned it into a mobile dentist's office, complete with dentist's chairs and an x-ray machine. Once it was set up in Kabul, it became the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project.

The clinic was treating about 60 patients a day. The dentist did some fundraisers, but it was largely subsidized through profits from his Santa Barbara clinic. He had another idea, on how to not only serve more people, but to make the operation self-sufficient

Kids waiting for treatment at the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project's clinic in Kabul.
ADRP photo
Kids waiting for treatment at the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project's clinic in Kabul.

He set up a school to train dental assistants. And, he set up a high-end dental office for people who could afford to pay for more elaborate care. Money from the for-profit clinic subsidized the free clinic.

Over the last 20 years, the clinics served an estimated 200,000 people. But then, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. The clinics were initially closed, but then allowed to reopen. In January, the new government forced the clinic to close. It wanted the land where the facility was located.

It didn't have a problem with the clinic. The government was so strapped for cash, it decided to ban street vendors, and force them to rent spaces in stalls. The clinic was in a good location, so the government told the clinic it would have to move to make way for one of the vendor marketplaces.

The January shutdown couldn’t have come at a worse time. Because of its financial crisis, the Taliban government had shut down the other major facilities in the region providing free dental care. The non-profit’s team was swamped with those desperate for help.

But, the Taliban government wouldn’t budge. They had to shut down the dental clinic January 4. The Santa Barbara dentist, and his team in Afghanistan started a search for a new home base.

They found a spot, but the project was going to cost about $15,000. Here’s where doing a very big good deed came in handy for the Santa Barbara dentist. Rolfe had attended the University of The Pacific Dental School in San Francisco. They wanted to honor him for his efforts in Afghanistan. When he explained the project to about 1500 of his fellow dentists at the ceremony, they donated the $15,000 needed to move the clinic, and to set it up at a new location.

With the money in hand, they found a spot, went to work preparing the site, and making arrangements for trucks and cranes to complete the move. It took place earlier this month.

This week, the clinic is finally back in business, serving some of the poorest of the poor in Afghanistan, thanks to the efforts of a dedicated dentist halfway around the world in Santa Barbara.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.