Everyday Heroes:

Moving Mountains with Toothbrushes

by Kathleen Pederson Whitworth

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Sometimes, to move a mountain you have to move yourself. So the Downeys did—all the way to a far-off island.

Imagine that your family is moving. To Tonga. Your dad has sold his thriving dental practice. Your family has sold your new home and most of the furniture and will live solely on the proceeds from the sales, without any additional income, for at least six months, while you all help your dad in a dental clinic.

Sound incredible? For Rebecca and David Downey, it was their family’s answer to the question, “How do you move a mountain?” The question came from younger brother Brenton, who followed up with an even greater challenge, “Dad, will you teach me how to move a mountain?” The answer, after much prayer, ultimately led the entire Downey family, along with cousin Nattalie Connell, to a life-changing service project in Nuku‘alofa, Tonga. They may not have moved any mountains, but they moved dozens of suitcases, thousands of toothbrushes, and many, many hearts.

Brushing Up

Deseret International, a nonprofit organization, sponsored Brother Downey’s dental service and arranged for him to work in a Church-built clinic and in various other locations in Tonga. Brother Downey purchased some equipment and supplies using his own funds. And thanks to an Eagle Scout project organized by Jonathan Whitworth, a friend of the Downeys, Colorado dentists donated the additional supplies Brother Downey needed. The family arranged to live in a small house near the clinic.

Rebecca (13), David (15), and Nattalie (13) had to adjust to a new language, climate, and culture. At first they missed things from home like snow skiing, nearby grocery stores, and modern conveniences. They particularly missed their friends and family. But the warm welcome they received from the students at Church-owned Liahona Middle and High Schools helped ease their adjustment. Soon they were enjoying their new environment—snorkeling in the ocean, eating bananas and coconuts from their own trees, and taking walks to the nearby temple.

Whenever possible, the teens, along with younger siblings Brenton (7), Jacob (5), and Brianna (11), assisted Brother Downey in the clinic. In the first four months alone, the teens helped him attend to thousands of patients and give away more than 14,000 toothbrushes. The toothbrushes were the first that many recipients had ever owned. Under Brother Downey’s direction, patients received nearly half a million dollars’ worth of fillings, extractions, cleanings, root canals, and other dental work. And the teens helped Brother Downey train volunteers and local nurses to ensure that dental care continued after the family’s return to the United States.

Service Drills

When the Downeys weren’t teaching the people of Tonga how to brush and floss, they were interacting with them in other ways. Nearly every night included a service-oriented activity—from cleaning up roadsides and beaches to singing to children in the hospital. David says he particularly enjoyed Tuesday nights, when the Downeys would have another family over for pizza. “They don’t have pizza in Tonga very often, so it’s a great treat. It’s also a great time to get to know people one on one,” he says.

Because of their service in Tonga, Rebecca, David, and Nattalie had many opportunities to share the gospel. Even before the Downeys left Colorado, people became interested in their journey and, then, the Church. “Our neighbors asked for a Book of Mormon and started to read it. Friends started to take the missionary discussions and asked if they could keep writing their questions about the Church to us by e-mail,” says David.

Rebecca and Nattalie say their own testimonies grew from the experience, as well. Rebecca adds that serving in Tonga helped her realize what was truly of worth. “I have become more humble. The people there were a great example to me. I realize that people are more important than things.” To illustrate, she recounts her family taking some of their used clothing to a family devastated by a typhoon. In gratitude, the Tongan family gave the Downeys a bowl of peanuts that they had salvaged from what was left of their crop after the storm. “That represented about a month’s worth of income for them,” notes Rebecca. “We gave them our leftovers, and they gave us everything they had.”

Now back home in Colorado, the teens are readjusting to a land-locked existence and missing their friends in Tonga. But thanks to their year abroad, they think they might know what it takes to move a mountain: faith, love, and an unquenchable desire to serve. That, and a whole lot of toothbrushes.

Selling a home and dental practice and setting up a clinic in Tonga (opposite, top) meant big changes for everyone. (Opposite, bottom left) Nattalie, David, and Rebecca in their school uniforms.

Additional equipment and toothbrushes needed at the clinic were provided through the Eagle Scout project of David’s friend, Jonathan Whitworth (below).

The Downey family at the Nuku‘alofa Tonga Temple grounds. (Back row, left to right), Brother and Sister Downey with baby Alissa, Brianna, Rebecca, and David. (Front row, left to right), Jacob, Bradley, and Brenton.