Expat Extra: ‘You can’t turn your back on this’

When ultra-marathon competitor Tim Phillips asked Matt Chesterton and I to accompany him to Greater Buenos Aires to meet the founder of a slum-based charity and visit her project, with a view to raising funds three years ago, the idea was to check out the NGO was genuine and that the founder wasn’t dressed head to toe in Gucci.

Fiona Watson took us to one of the dental clinics on the edge of a shantytown in the northern suburbs, which she set up via Todos Juntos — and no, there wasn’t a Gucci label in sight.

She says: “After seeing that little boy outside my car, I started researching cartoneros and met a US girl who had written her thesis on them. I found out that she was working with a family of cartoneros who lived in a José León Suárez slum. We hooked up and she took me. And once I went there, I thought ‘you can’t turn your back on this, it’s so awful’. And it was worse in 2003. It was so, so shockingly poor. I just didn’t expect to see that in Argentina.

“What stood out was the filth, and the amount of abscesses in children’s mouths. We visited a family with three kids, and one was in bed with half her face deformed from an abscess, and there was a smell of cat piss everywhere. The mum, who was 31, had no teeth and I thought I was in a horror film because of the smell, the dirt, the sewage.

“I thought ‘you can’t just come and see their lives then walk away, pretending it doesn’t exist’, like the Bob Dylan song says. So I said to the American girl, ‘we need to do something, about their teeth.’ I don’t know why the teeth bothered me so much, maybe it’s because I hate dentists. So we decided to go back with toothbrushes and toothpaste that we bought. A lot of kids were excited as they didn’t know what these things were, but it was free, and new and nice. So we friended the children, and carried on going back until I realized that it’s not enough.

“I suggested to my ex that we open a clinic, but that meant creating an NGO as you have to be legal so that people trust you with US$1,000 donations. It took about a year due to all the paperwork, registering it in La Plata and setting up a bank account, which wasn’t easy.

“I visited all the public health centres near the slums, always in the same area — I was attached as I knew children, their families, and had started to speak a bit of villero Spanish. And given that I worked with a soup kitchen but was also part of the expat community meant that when other expats left, they started donating things to me, and I’d take them to families.

“And that was how Todos Juntos started.”

Photo courtesy of Todos Juntos.

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