Dr. Alan Hathaway - 2003 Award Recipient
What began as “a reason to go to Brazil” has developed into a labor of love for Davenport, Iowa, dentist Dr. Alan Hathaway.
For the past 19 years, “Doc” Hathaway and his wife Peg have traveled to the Brazilian city of Medina, a small town in the middle of the northeast highlands, spending three weeks each year providing free dental care to 400-500 poor children of the area.
Hathaway is the 2003 recipient of the Matthew 25 Award from Divine Word College, given for his work with the children of Brazil. Hathaway accepted the award during a banquet on Wednesday, March 19.
The Matthew 25 Award is presented annually to recognize those who are engaged in front-line ministries with the “least among us,” in the spirit of the Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 25. Award recipients minister among immigrants and refugees, street people, AIDS victims, inner-city youth, prisoners – those who live at the margins of our society and still lack a public voice. “Through this award we want to demonstrate our support for men and women engaged in ministry and introduce our students to inspiring models of ministry,” said Rev. Michael Hutchins, SVD, and Divine Word College President.
Hathaway became aware of the dire state of poor children’s teeth in Medina in the mid-1980s. While on tour of the area, he noticed that the children had a habit of sucking on sugar cane as a sweet treat. Unfortunately, the children sucked on the sugar cane so much that by the time they were 12 their teeth had deteriorated to the point where the teeth formed a hole just the right size to accommodate the sugar cane.
“This observation helped me decide to make it my mission to help break this cycle of tooth destruction,” says Hathaway. With the help of his wife, Peg, his office assistant Philean Spencer, along with her husband, Don, and her sister, JoLynne, Hathaway set up a program for providing dental care to the poor children near Medina. “Philean’s sister JoLynne was a member of the Holy Cross Missionary Sisters in Medina and she helped organize the program through the local church,” says Hathaway.
Locally the program is known as ‘Campanha Sorriso’ – ‘Campaign of the Smile.’ The name is derived from the participation of local clowns who volunteer their time to entertain children as they wait to be treated. Hathaway says that the clowns are vital to the program because not only do they entertain, but they teach the children the proper way to brush and that sugar cane and sugary treats can damage their teeth. Hathaway is grateful for the clowns because they are able to speak to the children in their own language – something that Hathaway admits that he can’t do. “I don’t speak the language. All I know is ‘open your mouth,’ ‘close your mouth,’ and ‘spit’ – that’s it. I’ve gone to school twice to learn the language and never did, so I gave up. I know enough to get by.”
Even though there is a language barrier, Hathaway has made a connection with people in Brazil. He says that every kid in Medina knows him. When he arrives, the children come to greet him and offer what they can – a healthy smile. Hathaway has even made two appearances on the Brazilian equivalent of CNN – Globo TV has featured the “Campanha Sorriso” twice over the years.
Though the contributions made by Hathaway are great, he’s quick to point out that he hasn’t done it alone. Over the years many people have accompanied him and his wife on their annual visits. Some have been dentists, some dental assistants, and he’s even brought his jazz band, The Dixie Cats, to Brazil to perform concerts for the people there.
In the beginning, Hathaway would spend one day in several small towns surrounding Medina providing dental care. It soon became apparent that it was more efficient to locate the program in the Medina Parish Center where they could set up their equipment and develop a network of local people to help with the program. Today, Hathaway has enough equipment in Medina to accommodate six dentists. Beyond the basics, Hathaway has even designed special dental chairs for the children since the more traditional dental chair is not available. The Holy Cross Sisters help keep the program alive between Hathaway’s visits by encouraging several local dentists to give care to relieve pain.
Hathaway’s service to poor Brazilians recently expanded to include prisoners. He says, “I didn’t have any children scheduled for the first Saturday last year, so I asked Sr. Frieda to go to the jail and see if they had any prisoners who needed a tooth pulled. They brought nine prisoners to see me. It was so fun to work with these men. I couldn’t talk to them but they were so tickled to get a breath outside the jail and to have someone do something to get rid of their misery.” This was so satisfying for Hathaway that he is now designating the first Saturday of every visit to treating prisoners.
The generosity of the 73-year-old dentist goes beyond his gift of dental care. He tells many stories of people coming to seek help. “The people are so poor. There is no work. There are so many street kids that don’t go to school.”
Hathaway could like to help all of the people he meets but realizes that he can’t help everyone. He keeps a positive outlook and says, “I’ll help them if I can.”
Dedication and a true love of the work are what keep “Doc” Hathaway returning each year. He describes the work as fulfilling and appreciates the connection with the poor. “Around here a neighbor knocks on your door and asks for a donation for one cause or another. But you don’t have any connection with the people you are supposedly helping. In Brazil, we are able to have a direct connection with the people we are helping.”
Hathaway and his wife Peg have six children and 16 grandchildren. He is a member of St. Anthony’s Church in Davenport and serves as the assistant director of the Davenport Diocesan Volunteer Program. Hathaway has served on the Iowa State Board of Dental Examiners since 1998.