It was a drizzly day in July in the village of Cabatangan in Talisay, a small city in the province of Negros Occidental in the Philippines. Seven-year old Tonton had finished his chores early and was rushing to the lone sink of their tiny hut. His sister, Tina was already there so he had to push and jostle to get a place by the wash. The reason for all that excitement: Tina and Tonton were brushing their teeth tonight.

Brushing one’s teeth is normally no cause for excitement.  Millions of 7-year old kids the world over brush their teeth daily — some willingly, some with a bit of grumble and many others with a bit of firm, parental urging.
For Tonton and Tina, today was different. Today, they were brushing their teeth with proper toothbrush and toothpaste, something they have not had the luxury of doing before. Both kids have never owned a proper toothbrush for as long as they can remember.

They are not alone.  Thousands of young children in poor, remote communities in the Philippines know almost nothing about dental care or oral hygiene. They live in families where money is tight and every available centavo goes to food and shelter rather than to personal hygiene

Asin lang kag tubig ang gina-usar namon. (We just use salt and water.),” Tonton recounts. “Kon kis-a nagapang-us lang kami sang tubo. (Sometimes we also just chew on sugar cane.)”

So Tina and Tonton had needed no urging to go and brush their teeth that day. With shouts of “kanamit” (yummy) and “daw kendi” (tastes like candy), even their usually stoic parents were surprised at how such a little thing could mean so much to their children.

A Stranger Bearing Gifts

Tina and Tonton were among the hundreds of children from GK Hope Village in Talisay to have received the gift of bubbling “kendi” that day. Earlier, they had heard that a guest was coming to the village  — a white doctor from some distant land — and he was bringing gifts and important lessons for them all.

That guest was Dr. Hani Farr, a dentist and periodontist with a successful practice in Vienna, Austria. Accompanied by Dr. Aim Marie Feliciano, a young, freshly minted dentist from the city of  Talisay itself, he had come to distribute up to 500 toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes, free for use by the village children.  More important, he was there to teach them how to brush properly and why caring for their teeth is such an important thing to do.

While the toothbrush and toothpaste giveaway was a major highlight for the children, it was but just a small part of the mission that the Austrian dentist had set out to do in this secluded village in rural Philippines.

Dr. Hani Farr was there for something much bigger. He was there to set up a fully functioning dental clinic in Barangay Cabatangan, complete with a dental chair, basic furniture, equipment and essential supplies to make it fully operational. This had never been done before, at least, in the Philippines and in the scale that Dr. Farr had envisioned.

He had come with a very definite plan of action, and a tight deadline. He only had 10 days to buy a dental chair and its components locally; to supervise the setup of the clinic; and to impart his know-how in dentistry and oral hygiene to local counterparts. He also had the utmost confidence that all these would be accomplished within a week.

A Journey of Many Steps

All journeys begin with a single step, and the journey that took an Austrian dentist to the GK Hope Village in Talisay began in Vienna almost a year earlier.

As a much-respected member of the International College of Dentists (ICD)  European Section, Dr. Hanni Farr had  personally conducted and setup dental clinics in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Bouyed by the success of these missions, he wanted to conduct a similar mission in Asia, confident that (ICD-Europe) will back his efforts if he found a worthy recipient.

As chance would have it, many of Dr. Farr’s clients are from the diplomatic community in Asia. A Filipino couple, Drs. Efren and Jane Abaya, were particularly active in charitable and social causes and he approached them with the idea.

Efren and Jane were immediately enthusiastic and excited about the project. They in turn, recruited two friends, Rodolfo Quevenco and Jorge Villanueva, to help identify a recipient community in the Philippines and draft a project proposal to be presented to ICD-Europe.

What followed was a series of meetings between  Dr. Farr and the group to tress out details on how to move forward.

“Poor children everywhere should be able to get the same benefits our children are enjoying,” Dr. Farr pointed out to the group. He was alluding to data from UNICEF showing that 130 million children worldwide are affected by poverty and disease.

Soon, the group was able to narrow down a potential, recipient community.  They picked Gawad Kalinga (GK)Hope Village in Talisay, Negros Occidental as a community meeting most of the criteria for the project.

It was remote but still accessible; there were no dental clinics from miles and around; and the community had a high number of indigent families that would benefit directly from a dental clinic.

GK Hope was also part of a wider GK network of villages, so the infrastructure was in place to takeover,  operate and manage the dental clinic once it was finished. A volunteer-based, non-governmental organization (NGO) renowned for building homes for the homeless, GK was fast making a name for itself  as a catalyst for change and a reliable partner in the fight against poverty. Its network of enthusiastic volunteers was spread throughout almost every corner of the country.  This was an important consideration for the project.

At the same time, Jorge and Rodolfo both stemmed from Negros Occidental, and were familiar with its people, dialect and culture. Rodolfo had also visited the village personally in a previous trip to the Philippines.

To make a long story short,  the group was able to draft a proposal ready for submission to ICD-Europe by December 2011. Three months later, in March 2012, word came through email from Dr. Farr informing the group that the Philip Dear Foundation of ICD-Europe had approved a grant for a project to set up a dental clinic in Gk Hope Village in Talisay.

The journey can now begin.

Many Hands Make Light Work

With a broad grin, and with Talisay Mayor Eric Saratan beside him, Dr. Farr cut the ribbon officially opening the GK Hope Dental Clinic on 7 July 2012. Almost the entire village was there for the occasion, including city government officials and key GK representatives. There was food and music. The village children had also prepared some entertainment numbers for the gathered guests.

To top it all, Talisay City Mayor Eric Saratan did not only participate in the opening ceremony; he also agreed to be the first official patient of the dental clinic.

Dr. Farr was a happy man — he had achieved what he had set out to do, and on schedule. Most importantly, this remote village now had a dental clinic in its midst that, in many respects, was more modern than any of the dental clinics they can find in the city.

“These are really lovely, wonderful people,” said Dr. Farr. “Everybody helped and cooperated to the utmost of their ability to make the project a success.”

Help came from the men of the village, first of all. In trademark GK bayanihan spirit, they worked constantly throughout the whole week — often through heavy rainfall — to finish construction of the small building that would house the clinic.

Then there is Dr. Aim Marie Feliciano. Freshly out of dental college, she turned down an offer to work at a dental office in Manila catering to celebrities and movie stars to start her own clinic in Talisay. A devout Catholic and committed social worker, she had volunteered to come and work for several times a week free at the GK Hope dental clinic when it opens.

Enrique Lacson was instrumental in the local preparations for the project. A planter and businessman, he had been assigned the role of project coordinator for the GK Hope Village, and was able to muster volunteers and resources to get the project running smoothly and on schedule.

“This is the first-ever dental clinic in a GK village in the Philippines,” Enrique Lacson said. “We are proud and honored that it is here in Talisay, Negros Occidental and will do our best to make it a success.”

Mayor Eric Saratan, himself a medical doctor, promised the city’s support to keep the clinic viable, functional and able to serve the needs of the villagers in GK Hope and the surrounding areas.

“This project represents a pioneering effort to bring dental facilities and services, as well as education and preventive programs to those that need them most,” Mayor Saratan said.

“The project was indeed a success,” Dr. Farr, now back in Vienna, confirmed. “For this, I have to thank the GK organizers for their hard work and the Philip Dear Foundation of ICD-Europe for their trust and support for me to carry this through.” The project is even now beginning to get some well-deserved recognition.

Speaking before a large crowd of Austrians and Filipinos during the Barrio Fiesta festival in Vienna in July, Philippine Ambassador to Austria Lourdes Yparraguirre acknowledged Dr. Farr’s pioneering project in the Philippines and the benefits this would bring.

“The establishment of this dental clinic, and the accompanying dental education, will promote more frequent and continuing medical care needing only visits by trained dental staff,” Ambassador Yparraguirre said.  “This, in turn, will empower the village to improve their standard of health.”

Moving Forward

It is now August. At the GK Hope Village in Talisay, Dr. Aim Feliciano is preparing to call it a day. She’d put in a long day at the dental clinic today. There were twice as many patients as usual, and she was dead on her feet. She took another glance around the room. For some reason, the sight of the shiny, new dental chair at the middle at the middle always put a smile on her face.

“My former classmates would bite their elbows to know that the dental chair in this remote village is more modern that the ones we use at dental school,” she mused to herself.

With some worry, she realized that the dental supplies that the good doctor from Austria left behind would soon be running out … and then what?

“God will provide,” she whispered. “God is my strength.” Then she turned off the lights.

Thousands of miles away, in Vienna, Austria, Efren, Jane, Jorge and Rodolfo were huddled with Dr. Farr in the back room of his posh dental office at the Mischek Tower.

“This time we should focus more on education,” he was telling the gathered group. “We can pick two children from the village and send them to dental technician school so they can earn some money for their families.”

“And I can also do lectures at the dental university in Iloilo the next time I visit the Philippines. What do you think….?”

The work continues….