James Rolfe’s dental office is situated on a sunny patch of Canon Perdido Street, tucked in cozily next to the Lobero Theatre, in downtown Santa Barbara. On a Wednesday afternoon, State Street shoppers walk lazily by — sipping blended mochas, toting miniature dogs, enjoying a bit of fleeting sunshine after days of intermittent rain. But Rolfe isn’t in the office. One very long mile away, on East Yanonali Street, with the steady whir of traffic on the 101 playing like a soundtrack, the dentist is working on something a world away from his Santa Barbara practice.
Down a dirt road in the more industrial part of town off Yanonali, James Rolfe is packing. His long gray ponytail pokes out from under a navy-blue baseball cap that reads “University of the Pacific School of Dentistry,” Rolfe’s alma mater. Although he is not above average height, he does have the hands of a much larger man. Rough, strong hands — dirty fingernails, cracked skin. In this environment he looks less like a dentist and more like an eccentric philosophy professor with a knack for carpentry. His gray T-shirt has a stain near the right shoulder and his shoes look worn at the toes. Rolfe is handsome; his eyes, from behind a pair of reading glasses, are warm.
He is moving things into and out of a beige, 40-foot shipping crate about the size of an extremely large motor home that, from the outside, looks like nothing more than a metal rectangular box. But inside, Rolfe has transformed the box into a shippable dental clinic with three dentist chairs, all the requisite dental assistant instruments, a sanitizing room, X-ray equipment and a fully functioning, modern dental lab. Although it is a bit claustrophobic, dentistry doesn’t really call for much personal space, so the crate seems sufficient. Along the inside walls, Rolfe’s girlfriend, Yoshiko Nester, has painted words like “love” and “dreams” in English and Farsi. And that’s because this crate isn’t long for Santa Barbara; in a matter of weeks it will find itself en route to Afghanistan.
Rolfe visited Afghanistan for the first time in the spring of 2003.
After closely following the various conflicts and the devastation of the Afghan people for decades, he was moved to do something for the country himself. He founded the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project, packed 500 pounds of dental equipment, bought a plane ticket and headed to an orphanage in the province of Wardak. For three weeks he worked from 6:30 a.m. until 10 at night, providing dental services to the children of the orphanage as well as the larger community. While he worked, slowly, the children started shadowing him. And a natural training program evolved as Rolfe began teaching them to be his assistants.
There were no dentists in the province. “The things I saw,” says Rolfe. “Multiple abscessed teeth. No pain medication. No antibiotics. It made me cry.”
After returning home from Wardak, it wasn’t long before he bought another plane ticket, this time to the capital city of Kabul, where he spent two weeks providing dental services at a women’s clinic. Women, Rolfe found, were particularly underserved because of their relegated position in the culture. According to Amnesty International’s 2005 report on Afghanistan, women there continue to “face systematic and widespread violence, and public and private discrimination,” and are still commonly imprisoned “for running away from home, adultery and other sexual activity outside marriage — known as zina crimes.”
When he returned home for the second time, Rolfe decided to make a more long-term commitment to the Afghan people.
“People in Afghanistan are so neglected and are not being helped by America,” he explains. “And so often we don’t feel empowered to run our own lives. There’s no politician to vote for and everything is imposed. I wanted to do this to feel empowered. I would decide to make it happen.”
And so he did.
Instead of making periodic trips and helping the people in Afghanistan for short periods of time every few years, Rolfe decided he wanted to do something more permanent. He wanted to ensure that the people he was helping would have continued services. And the only way he could imagine to do that would be to build a dental clinic in Kabul. Or, rather, build a dental clinic in America, ship it to Kabul and open it to the public, all the while training orphans and widows to do the dental work so that the clinic sustains itself into the future.
It was a wonderful idea, but an unbelievably complicated one. In order to build something like this, one would need to have the skills of an electrician, a mechanical engineer, an architect, a graphic designer, a carpenter, a painter and a few other varied professionals. In order to secure the land and get approval from the Afghanistan government, one would need to be a skilled diplomat, a savvy businessman and a seasoned negotiator, and it wouldn’t hurt to speak Farsi. But Rolfe had only himself and the occasional friend volunteering a few hours here and there.
So what did he do? He made a lot of mistakes, but he started and he didn’t stop.
If he is forced to break it down, Rolfe figures that he works 40 hours a week at his regular practice on Canon Perdido, 30 hours a week doing his own lab work (a rarity among dentists, most of whom outsource lab work), and 50 hours a week on his Afghanistan project. If he was fortunate enough to get seven hours of sleep a night, that would leave him with exactly zero hours of free time a week. But of course, we haven’t factored in the e-mails he has to answer and the more office-related, logistical aspects of pulling off something like this.
Rolfe admits that the schedule, which he’s kept for the past 14 months, is driving his girlfriend nuts. He says it casually enough, though, shaking his head in amusement at the person he’s become. “Everything else has faded out. I crave doing things that are not structured, that are just fun. So I have to watch myself. I’ve really become like a machine,” he says only half-jokingly.
And then there’s the financial burden. Rolfe estimates that, thus far, he has spent $140,000 dollars of his own money on the project. While it’s safe to assume that most dentists who practice in Santa Barbara live comfortably on the hillside with views of the ocean, Rolfe lives in a low-income condo that costs him $500 dollars a month and manages to survive on roughly $7,000 dollars a year. “I live like a street person,” he says, explaining that 95 percent of what he uses on a day-to-day basis is recycled.
“We’re basically hunter gatherers … our essence is hunter gatherers,” he says. “By doing this, I satisfy myself. I kind of save the world at the same time. I negate my impact on the environment. Recycling is more than cashing in bottles.”
This philosophy came in handy when it was time to furnish the dental clinic with equipment. Much of what Rolfe has installed was donated from other U.S. dentists who found out about the project by word of mouth. Although the majority of donations were broken in one way or another when he got his hands on them, he’s since repaired everything and all of it is now in working order. The generator he has stored in another shipping crate was donated by a marijuana grower in Humboldt. Rolfe drove all the way to Humboldt one day to pick it up, and all the way back the next. The 200 blankets he plans on taking with him to Afghanistan are actually moving pads he salvaged out of a dumpster behind a brand new 24 Hour Fitness near his office. Standing at the edge of another shipping container that is jammed full of supplies (there are seven crates total), he rests his hand on a propane tank. Someone had thrown it out, he explains, just because it had a busted valve. Now, of course, it’s as good as new.
As Rolfe rearranges a few items in the crate, Scott Savre drops by to show him a color diagram of the project that he recently created on his computer. Once everything is delivered in Kabul, Rolfe intends to form a quadrangle with four of the shipping crates — a sort of dental clinic compound.
Savre is one of Rolfe’s patients and has volunteered close to 800 hours of his time over the course of the last year. “I twisted his arm,” jokes Rolfe.
When violent rains pummeled Ventura and Santa Barbara in the winter of 2005, Savre was there installing cabinetry with Rolfe. Around the same time mud rushed down the hillside and covered the tiny enclave of La Conchita, the two were working furiously despite the torrential rain and simultaneously struggling to keep things in the clinic dry.
Savre moves a stray strand of hair out of his face as he opens up a photo album that seems to have materialized out of thin air. In the album are pictures of the project from inception. On one page, the inside of an empty crate that looks nothing like the dental clinic that now sits only a few feet from where the two are standing. On another page, there is Rolfe, hammer in hand, with nothing but a few lamps illuminating the pitch darkness.
Recently, although one could never consider him much of a self-promoter, Rolfe has found himself in the midst of a small storm of media attention. Over the course of a few days in early March, his face graced the cover of a handful of Santa Barbara newspapers.
But Rolfe insists that none of this is really about him; rather, it’s about the people of Afghanistan.
“My purpose is to help people. I really feel the need of the people,” he says before running off a litany of staggering statistics that he has gathered about Afghanistan. The average life expectancy is only 42 years. There is only a 30 percent literacy rate there. Unemployment is endemic — one person per family might have a job. There has been an eight-year drought. Water quality is abysmal. There are 27 million people in Afghanistan and 10 percent of them are orphans. There is no running water or electricity in Kabul. Half of the buildings there are in ruins. There are 134 dentists in the whole country. People are dying from abscessed teeth because they don’t have access to antibiotics.
“The people have been forgotten and abandoned,” says Rolfe. “This is a lifesaving mission. We think of cosmetic dentistry, but people there are dying …”
In Rolfe’s opinion, Afghanistan was used as a pawn during the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s, when the U.S. supplied support in the form of arms to Afghan rebels as they fought the Soviets. “I’ve followed our government’s involvement in Afghanistan,” he explains. “We were so aggressive. Decimated the people and then left … The Afghan people were cannon fodder for the U.S. when they faced Russia. And after the war, we didn’t help.”
More than once, while Rolfe explains the conditions he’s witnessed during his visits to Afghanistan, his eyes glisten. “This affects me on a very emotional level. Probably more than it should,” he says blinking back tears.
Rolfe’s philosophy is a simple one: As one of the richest countries, the U.S. should be helping one of the poorest countries, which is Afghanistan. Instead of taking on that benevolent role of a big brother, though, he is dismayed that the U.S. has become an international bully.
Everything is packed and Rolfe now awaits a number of contracts that need to be signed by the Afghanistan government. Once those are signed and back in his hands, the shipping will begin. A giant crane has already weighed one of the containers to see if it can be easily transported. At 36,000 pounds it will be able to travel on a standard truck before it is shipped to Port Rotterdam in Holland, sent on a train across Eastern Europe to Southern Russia, and then trucked through Uzbekistan to Afghanistan.
Shipping all of the equipment will most likely add up to another $20,000 dollars, according to Rolfe’s rough estimates. Luckily, a large donation from the Raqim Foundation, a humanitarian organization that does public service work in Afghanistan, means that he won’t have to foot the bill himself.
After the equipment is shipped, Rolfe plans on making three different trips — one to survey the land and mark the exact places where the four crates that will make up the quadrangle need to be placed, then to set up the facility and, finally, when it opens, to begin providing services and dental training to the community.
One of the most important aspects of the whole project is the educational component. Along with toothbrushes, Rolfe is also shipping blackboards and desks as well as mattresses. Next to the clinic there will be a training facility where orphans and widows will be trained as dental assistants, hygienists and lab workers. And the mattresses will be for the roster of international dentists that Rolfe hopes will decide to volunteer their time and skills.
Then, eventually, Rolfe plans to transform the compound into a permanent facility and ship the movable clinic to another area that needs help.
“This will catch on,” says Rolfe, optimistically. “And I’ll get some kind of funding and I won’t have to do it all by myself.”