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Teen's memory lives on in 'Etta's Project'

The family of a South Kitsap teen who died last year in a bus accident in Bolivia is there this week for the launching of a project dedicated to her — a facility in the South American country to offer food, daycare and education to dozens of impoverished children.

Etta’s Project, or El Comedor de la Etta, is the first endeavor of a non-profit organization formed by her family in honor of South Kitsap High School student MaryEtta Turner, 16, who died on a field trip to the mountains last November while living as an exchange student in Montero, Bolivia.

Port Orchard resident Sue Wallace, a family friend of the Turners, said a group of priests that runs a school in Montero and knew Etta, told her family they had decided to add a dining complex to their building and name it “Etta’s Project.”

The group, along with the Montero Rotary, raised $90,000 to lease the property and turn it into a kitchen facility that will feed up to 100 children a day. Eventually, they hope to also provide pre-school classes for the children, along with health and sanitation education for their mothers.

The complex is located in Montero’s La Floresta neighborhood, home to about 13,000 people, many of whom are poor and come there looking for work. Approximately 40 percent of the residents are children aged 14 or younger.

Wallace said that soon after Etta’s father, Jim Turner, heard about the project, he went on sabbatical from his job as an attorney in Wenatchee and flew down to Bolivia to lend a hand last month.

“I kind of knew he would go,” Wallace said, explaining that Turner had formed a connection with Etta’s host family while recovering her body last year. “I think he felt that was where he needed to be — to pound the nails, but also be where she was, to be in the same hangouts, eat the same food that she ate. I think that was very healing for him.”

To send the rest of Etta’s family to Bolivia in time for the project’s dedication today— her mother Pennye Nixon-West, her stepfather Guy West, brothers Atticus and Will Turner, and sister Yamini West — Wallace said she helped raise nearly $10,000 from friends and other family members, along with a large donation from the Port Orchard Rotary.

“We raised way more than we needed to purchase the tickets,” she said, “so Pennye will be taking $5,000 extra to help buy vitamins, pots and pans, and books for the project once she’s there.”

Along with the money, the family is also bringing 60 pounds of children’s chewable vitamins, more than 100 pounds of crayons and coloring sheets, and several soccer balls donated as well.

“(Pennye) just wanted to have something in her hands when she got there,” Wallace said. “Something to get them up and running.”

Wallace said the Wests and their adopted daughter Yamini will be returning to Port Orchard in a couple of weeks, but Will and Atticus will stay in Bolivia with their father until school starts in September.

Wallace said that the project’s opening was scheduled for June 25 has special meaning.

“The day is Kitsap County’s ‘Day of Caring,’ ” Wallace said, explaining it was just one of the many special surprises that happened during and after the life of the young woman who “connected with someone every time she walked into a room.”

“The outpouring of support has been overwhelming,” Wallace said. “But, I’m not surprised. She engaged people wherever she went.”

Turner was living in Bolivia as a Rotary International Exchange Student, and last November was only three months into her yearlong stay. On the third day of a bus trip through the mountains to the city of Tapiza, the bus drove off the edge of the road and six of the 21 passengers were killed. Several of the survivors included two other exchange students, and three American volunteer teachers.

You can help

For more information or to offer help, contact Sue Wallace at 360-769-7274. Funds can be donated toward the project at any local Columbia Bank branch under “Etta’s Project.”

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