Th 152497

Regalando Sonrisas: Giving a smile

June 1, 2004
As a young man, Joseph Hilbish was sent from Philadelphia, Pa., to a school for the deaf operated by Patty Jones, a missionary living in Colombia, South America.

Dr. Keith Phillips

Catalina teaching at a school
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As a young man, Joseph Hilbish was sent from Philadelphia, Pa., to a school for the deaf operated by Patty Jones, a missionary living in Colombia, South America. It was there he met and became a boarder of Captain Gustavo Vellojin and Dr. Catalina Vellojin. Captain Vellojin flies helicopters for the Colombian Air Force. Catalina graduated from the Universidad el Bosque in Bogota in 1999, and practices dentistry in the city of Barranquilla. Now, Gus and Catalina spend time with Joseph in Philadelphia to improve their English speaking skills. Like many dentists, Catalina has her own small private practice in Barranquilla, and has a dream of using her skills as a dentist to provide much needed care to the people of her city. They both dream of being instruments of change in their country.

Gus teaching a class
A man's feet should be planted in his country, but his eyes should survey the world. – George Santayana
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The story of this young couple's vision begins with a pastor from Scotland serving in a Philadelphia Church in Colombia — the Community Christian Faith. During a service one day, the pastor asked for people with jobs to stand up and pray. Catalina prayed that God would give her the solution to the suffering of the people of her country. Over the past four years, her vision for change has taken shape. In short, the Vellojin's vision is to use health care to reform their country. So, Gus has taken a large part of his income, combined it with the income from Catalina's dental practice, and they have started the "Regalando Sonrisas"— Giving a Smile Foundation. The foundation, or "Enterprise" as it is called in Colombia, is divided into two branches. The "Love for Colombia" branch helps to provide food, medical care, and immunizations to poverty prone areas of Barranquilla. The second branch, "Giving a Smile," provides charitable dental care.

The population served comes primarily from a zone around the city referred to as "The Misery Belt." Poor families needing food, jobs, and health care come in search of help. Unfortunately, most of these poverty stricken families find no jobs and end up living in total destitution in the misery belt. Catalina says, "These people don't have health care or food — and so they fight. We need to provide for them. Politicians fight about 'left' or 'right' — we need radical change. Gus and I want to use health and dental care to reform our country." The problems are massive. Seventy percent of Colombians are very poor, while 30 percent are considered comfortable. This two-class system leads to tremendous corruption. Gus and Catalina approached a local politician about accessing government funding to build a facility that could provide care to the needy in Barranquilla. The official agreed that the need was tremendous, and was in full support of the plan — if the couple would agree to "give back" 50 percent of the funding to the official! Unwilling to participate in this corruption, Gus and Catalina decided to make an effort at funding a facility themselves. They were able to rent a house and began the costly task of renovating. Sadly, after putting nearly $7,000 of their own money into the project, the owner — in prison at the time — sold the house and the project came to a close.

A bit dejected but far from defeated, Gus and Catalina continue their efforts to reform their country. Gus plans to enter politics after his military service ends in a few years, and eventually hopes to become the President of Colombia! Choosing to take a pragmatic approach, Catalina says, "Your life is a dream — but you need to keep your feet on the floor. Many people don't believe, but we believe. We understand there are things you just cannot do alone."

The challenges are great. There are three different cultures — Indian, Spanish, and descendants of African Slaves — living together in one of the most violent countries in the world; an Air Force Captain who believes many families who live on an average of $50 a month could be fed, clothed, and housed for every $2,500 rocket fired from his helicopter; and a dentist who believes providing dental and health care to these families is a way to bring peace and prosperity to her country. These two dreamers believe in possibility.

Dr. Keith Phillips maintains a private practice in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is president and founder of The Giving Hand Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to the start-up and development of free medical and dental clinics. Dr. Phillips also serves as a teaching associate at the L.D. Pankey Institute, and is a former faculty member of the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry.

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