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Santa Barbara dentist who founded free dental clinic in Afghanistan struggling to keep doors open

A little girl visits the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project in Kabul for free care.
Afghanistan Dental Relief Project
A little girl visits the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project in Kabul, for free care.

An 84-year-old dentist is using his Santa Barbara practice to help subsidize a free dental clinic. It's served more than 200,000 people since 2003.

He’s a well known dentist who treats hundreds of people a year in Santa Barbara County. But, he’s taken on a seemingly overwhelming task: To provide dental care for an entire county, where it is virtually non-existent.

"In 2003, I saw that the the American government was abandoning Afghanistan, and not helping to get the infrastructure, and the economy back together, and so I bought a ticket, and went to a remote province," said Dr. James Rolfe. "I found the entire province didn't have any dental care at all. People were actually dying because of their teeth."

He was overwhelmed by the lack of dental facilities, and trained dental personnel in Afghanistan. Rolfe came up with a unique idea, which led to a non-profit called the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project.

"I came back to Santa Barbara, and bought a shipping container," said Rolfe. He turned it into a clinic, with all the basic equipment of a dental office, and shipped it to Afghanistan. He hired a dentist and a dental assistant, and later set up a school to train Afghans to be dental technicians.

He initially used profits from his practice in Santa Barbara to fund the project. Eventually, Rolfe helped set up a second clinic. It provided advanced dental care for people who could afford it. That money was used to subsidize the free care.


People lined up for emergency dental care at the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project clinic in Kabul.
Afghanistan Dental Relief Project
People lined up for emergency dental care at the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project clinic in Kabul.

But, everything changed two years ago, when the Taliban took over control of Afghanistan. At first, the clinic was closed because they weren't sure that the new government would allow it to remain open with a largely female staff. It finally did reopen. Then, the Taliban government took away the property given to the clinic by the previous government. The clinic had to raise money to find land they could rent, and then to physically move the modular facility.

The clinic reopened, but in the last few weeks it was hit by a new crisis.

The Taliban came to check the clinic, and when they found a woman there who was not wearing a head covering, they severely beat the manager. After being threatened with death, he fled to Pakistan. Two female workers then quit after being repeatedly stopped for walking to work unaccompanied by a man.

They’ve hired three replacement staff members, but there’s another crisis. Most of the people who had enough money to get advanced dental care fled the country. They can run the facility for about $1500 a month, but they are only bringing in about $200.

The 84-year-old dentist has subsidized the effort for much of its two decade history with profits from his Santa Barbara dental practice.

He's back to doing that again. There are about 30 non-profits from around the world currently operating in Afghanistan, but when he put out requests for help, he said none of them even responded.

Rolfe says providing dental care to people he’s never met, half a world away has become a calling. "We neglected to help the Afghan people, and I feel like were doing a lot to help Ukraine, and Israel, and a lot of other countries," said Rolfe. We basically abandoned Afghanistan after going there. Afghans are basically worse off than they were before."

If you’d like to help, you can find details about the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project here.


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.