What’s Right With Tacoma: Etta Projects Christmas trees bring water, power to Bolivian town

If Etta Turner were assigned a spot on a Christmas tree, it's unlikely she'd be the angel. She'd be the elf climbing around the branches, wreaking sly havoc with sophisticated designs. She was that kind of kid, the teen who harnessed all her friends into volunteering for some great project, then cracked them up until they forgot how hard they were working.

That's part of the legacy her friends and family have built into Etta Projects: You can't go to one of its fund-raisers without getting a good laugh along with the auction, the poker games or the martinis.

This month, it's a tree lot – and a deluxe and elf-friendly one at that, with a brilliant selection of firs and nobles, a covered gazebo, a fireplace, cookies, cider and a shop of Bolivian crafts. Every penny it raises will head straight back to Bolivia to bring water and sanitation projects to the country's poorest and most isolated villages.

Etta would get a grin out of that. Her mom, Pennye Nixon, sure does.

Crocuses bloomed in the North End on the morning of Jan. 25, 1986. Nixon saw them while she was walking through labor with her first-born. On all of MaryEtta Clancy Turner's birthdays, Nixon reminded her that flowers turned out to welcome her.

Like the crocuses, Etta turned out to be a force of nature.

“She was the silliest kid, with a dry sense of humor,” Nixon said. “Somebody said she loved to laugh more than anybody they knew. She was thoughtful, too. She would think about what people were experiencing.”

She was 6 when the family moved to a mini-farm in Port Orchard.

“She had lots of friends in Tacoma, and she maintained her friendships,” her mom said.

Most adults can't manage what Etta determined to do at 6.

But what kid wouldn't want to visit a buddy who could persuade you to take off your clothes and run around in the rain until you had collected as much mud as is humanly possible? Or decide that the best way to eat ice cream is out of the bowl, without a spoon. Etta built a childhood so wild and joyous it often required getting hosed down outside on the way to a bubble bath inside.

She loved her horse, Star, who in turn loved no one but her.

She loved camping with her two younger brothers, Atticus and Will, and her sister Yamini. Together they proved that it is possible to transform the minimalism of a tent into chaos.

“I never knew where they slept, because the tent was such a wreck,” Nixon said.

She loved soccer, and played on a select team that won the state championship.

She loved school, amazed and amused her teachers, and accepted everyone as a friend.

She had her own motto: “In a world where you can be anything, be yourself.”

She was a student at Cedar Heights Junior High School when Rotarians gave a presentation on the International Rotary Exchange foreign study program.

“She came home that day and said, 'That's what I want to do.' I said fine,” Nixon said, and didn't think much about it. Etta did, applying, raising three pigs and doing odd jobs to help pay her way, dreaming of an exotic land with good beaches, and getting accepted.
Rotary assigned her to Montero, a mid-sized city in landlocked, poverty-ridden Bolivia.

“When she found out, she cried,” Nixon said.

Then she applied humor to the wound, stiffened her resolve and told her friends she was probably going to live in a box and eat llama meat. Without ketchup.

Instead, she lived with the lovely Paz family. The tall blonde girl who loved to eat, laugh and lean against silly rules made friends all over town. Her classmates loved that, for one report, she staged a sugar cane sword fight with a classmate. They marveled when she protested against wearing high heels to school, and in a two-mile parade. They were amazed when, after a sloth pooped on her in a plaza then ran into traffic, she ran after it, stopping cars and carrying the sloth to safety.

No one was surprised when, after she earned her diploma at the end of the school year, she and her fellow exchange student Sarah Houghton and friends planned a two-week bus trip into the mountains to explore and go riding. Four days into the trip, on the night of Nov. 25, 2002, they were sleeping on the bus when the driver fell asleep and drove it over a cliff. Etta was thrown from the bus and killed on impact. Sarah Houghton was badly injured. Six Bolivians died.

Etta's spirit continued to inspire, to the point of bossiness. In Montero, Rotarians and the Silesians listened, prayed, and cooked up a plan. This girl, the one who hated injustice and loved children – and food - would be delighted to have a meal site built and operated in her memory.

Three months after the crash, Father Pani and Mr. Paz proposed Comedor Etta Turner to Nixon. Nixon agreed, and threw her love and grief into raising funds for it, and sorting out policies for eligibility, sustainability and accountability. Then she flew down to help open it.

“It was a very small room, with no bathroom or sinks,” Nixon said. “We opened the door and fed 100 children that first day. We had a hosepipe, and the children couldn't come in unless they had clean hands. We didn't know what we were doing. Like many non-profits, we started out of love and compassion and no business sense. I don't think we were open a month before we realized the real work had to be with the moms.”

If anyone would fight for the children, it would be their mothers, but they needed skills and, quite literally, tools. Etta Projects began teaching the moms sewing, hair cutting, yogurt making, baking, soap making, community gardening, and brought in the sewing machines and utensils they needed to support their families.

Over the next six years, Etta Projects added a second comedor and more classes for moms.

“We taught them business skills and had self esteem classes,” Nixon said. “Probably the most important was self-esteem.”

Six years into it, Etta Projects leaders realized that the women's organizations associated with comedors and classes know how to run the programs on their own. So, in 2009, they turned them over to them. They are still running, and running well.

“Then we moved into rural and remote Bolivia, working on water and sanitation,” Nixon said. “Sanitation is huge. Toilets make a big difference in life, especially for women and girls. This year we worked in 18 villages, with four water projects, two sanitation projects.”

In every village, on every project, they listen first. They ask leaders to figure out what keeps them poor, and how they see meeting those needs. They ask, too, for investment from local governments, school districts, the national health ministry, so locals take ownership of the projects.

On an annual budget of $360,000, Etta Projects employs two full-time staff here, and eight more in Bolivia. It invites volunteers to travel to Bolivia to do anything from fix teeth, teach women how to be health promoters or help install a composting toilet or build a mini-medical resource. It is partnering with Tacoma's Always On Solar to bring power, as well as safe water to remote villages.

Here's the project tally for the year: 15 clean water systems; 110 ecological composting latrines, 22 school gardens, trained 50 women as local health promoters; they also brought maternal and infant and emergency equipment to seven hospitals.

“It doesn't take much to make life better for people,” Nixon said. “It does not take rocket science to create a composting toilet.”

For now, what it does take is a merry season of brisk Christmas tree sales. Each one comes with a keepsake – a photo of a child who, thanks to Etta, lives in a village with a toilet, and safe water.

Etta Projects Christmas Tree Lot

Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays to Dec. 21.

Cedar Springs Pavilion by the Lakes, 7354 Bethel Burley Rd. S.E. Port Orchard, 98367.

On Highway 16 from Tacoma, take the Mullenix Exit and turn left. Drive 0.4 miles to the stop sign and turn right onto Bethel Burley Road S.E. Drive a mile and look for the sign on the left.

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