by Pennye Nixon-West
One of Etta's many gifts was her ability to find the key to understanding the people she met, what made them unique and the innate potential of their individual circumstance. She lived her life that way in Washington State. Then, she brought that same perspective to her experiences with the people she came to love as an International Rotary Exchange student in Montero, Bolivia. Etta not only asked "Why" she asked: "Why not?"
Now, Etta Projects is built on her way of being in the world — operating from mutual respect, open dialogue, and a firm belief in the power of people to come together for good.
Etta died November 25th, 2002, at the age of 16, in Bolivia. During her travel as a Rotary International exchange student, Etta and six Bolivians were killed when their bus driver fell asleep and drove off a cliff.
Even after her passing, Etta's presence remained strong in Bolivia. A few months after her death, her family in Washington state was contacted by the local Rotary Club and the priest of the Silesian Catholic Church in Montero (also Etta's school principle) who knew her compassion and commitment to social justice well, and asked for a gift: that a nutrition center for impoverished children use her name. The sorrow of Etta's death was transformed into joy with the feeding of many children at the Comedor de Niño's Etta Turner.
It is a most fitting legacy for Etta: to give of herself to the world. Her family, friends and like-minded individuals now support the continuing Etta Projects.
"In a world where you can be anything, be yourself" — Etta Turner
Etta was born January 25 1986. The name chosen for her was MaryEtta Clancey Turner after her maternal grandmother and grandfather. On the day Etta was born the crocus bloomed. Even their brilliance after a long dreary winter could not compare to her. That brilliance is how she lived her life. It was full of surprises, joy, laughter, color, newness and love. She was truly on loan to us who loved her for such a short time. She was a gift to us, her family and friends, but also to the world for much of the world is now impacted by her brilliant life.
Humor was one of her gifts. Never was there one more loving of fun. Good Fun — fun to make everyone laugh — not just some. She could make everyone laugh out loud. What a gift! Laughter is said to be a tonic — If Etta had lived — she may have cured the world. Whether it was her comments, her funny faces, her obnoxious noises, or her zany antics, she could create laughter. She had a sharp wit and a sharp tongue but possessed balance “usually” with both.
She could hit you or beat you up like her brothers or her friends and oddly you would feel loved. She had ways of appearing to know what was going on even if no one else did. Many have said she wise way beyond her years. Perhaps she was.
As a young child she made friends easily. I think back now and realize that even though we moved from one town to another and even though the parent's that introduced these young preschoolers did not stay in touch well, Etta did. She would contact them periodically and it was as if their friendship never waned. Many of those same preschool children who bathed together and played with play dough were at her memorial service because their friendship was important and substantial throughout their lives.
We changed Etta's school for her second grade year and went from the public school system to a private school system. Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately as it turned out, life circumstances changed and we could not keep her in the private school. Less than two weeks after starting private school we brought her back to the public school. Her Dad and I walked her to her classroom. While standing in the doorway, the kids didn't just wave and say hi, they screamed "Etta's back!" and the whole class ran up to her to give her a hug. We knew then that the world was beginning to see her as brilliant too. She just responded by sheepishly grinning, but her influence had begun.
Even at preschool and early elementary years Etta could convince her peers to do what they would never think of on their own. Her friend Emily was very neat. One day when playing Etta's idea was for them to strip naked, roll in mud and run around outside in front of God and everybody for hours — just being free. Emily's mother was a bit appalled but recognized that freedom, true freedom — to just be yourself was rare and her daughter was sharing that with Etta. It was joy.
This theme prevailed in Etta's life. To have fun and be yourself, and to like yourself was her gift to the world. She seemed to have a knack for being unique and finding other's uniqueness too. Two of her friends, Allison and Molly describe her as such — "...in a school full of blondes, Etta was the one with the pink hair. When all the girls were carrying around black gap handbags, Etta was wearing a bright purse that she found at an Indian Store." They said, "It wasn't only Etta's appearance that made her one of a kind. The way she lived her life was truly unique."
When she met someone or even entered a new setting such as a class, she would look for the potential in that new person or in that new setting. Her friends say it would become her mission to show people who they could be. They say Etta would find a way to relate to everyone regardless of who they were or what they were about. As her mom, her variety of friends was always “interesting”. You never knew whether she would introduce you to someone with every hair in place or someone with every part of his or her body pierced. Etta truly loved people and found not only acceptance for all but also a reason to like them.
Etta always loved people. She sought out the underdogs, found their pressure points and then played and laughed at those things until the underdog themselves began to love the very thing that they thought was their nemesis. This was all done with such humor and sensitivity that generally people did not know what hit them. She could make you love yourself — faults and all — before you figured out you did. To be fat was special — to be Jewish in a crowd of non-Jewish or Mormon in a crowd of Jews was special— to be smart was special — to be shy was special— to be handicapped was special— to have goofy features was special — to be homeless was special-to be a geek was special. For whatever reason anyone did not like themselves— Etta found that very thing to have value and uniqueness and if you were fortunate enough to know her, she could make you like that thing. At the very least she would help you to accept it and learn to laugh about it. This, I now see was a gift of hers.
Etta's curiosity always made her a favorite of teachers and adult friends. She was never afraid to ask question or explore other's points of view. Her point of view frequently included a great deal of sarcasm mixed with a great deal of truth. Her favorite teachers, Jack Simonson and Stephanie Winslow, knew about her. They recognized that Etta had a wonderful gift for words. When only in seventh grade Mr. Simonson submitted a poem to Young Writers Guild and it was published. She could create beautiful things with word but as they well knew she could also use words for “evil”. It was another gift. Jack Simonson described her as, "sarcastic and tough, yet still soft spoken and helpful to others." Jack saw Etta's brilliance. He said "Everything Etta did showed intelligence; her thoughtful pauses before speaking, her uncanny ability to use your own words against you. Even her all-knowing smile had a way of suggesting she knew something you didn't."
Stephanie Winslow, Etta's science teacher, shared her thoughts of Etta. "Etta thought about others. For a project in class she wrote a children's story called “Science Solutions”. The dedication reads,To all the people who have ever felt out of the loop in science class." Ms. Winslow felt like this was a perfect example of Etta's acts of compassion and inclusion for all people.
Ms Winslow's very visual description of Etta reminds us all of Etta's uniqueness. "She would regularly show up to school in standard Etta fashion; sporting a trendy cross-over purse, maybe a funky bracelet (or five), eye shadow that color coordinated her outfit (usually green, pink, or blue) and an updo that made you jealous."
Ms Winslow also recognized Etta's impact on her world. The world is still being impacted by her presence and receiving the gift of her brilliance. Ms. Winslow put it well, "Her inquisitive nature, wonder, and desire to learn made her an ideal student, and it also made me a better teacher. Etta Turner was the kind of kid that reminds me why I teach. Teachers interact with students in class, observe them in hallways and hear about them from their friends and foes. Often you see students adapting, changing to fit the environment they are in. This was not the case with Etta — the environment seemed to conform to fit her colorful character. She was like a rainbow, but the pot of gold was just having the opportunity to know her. Etta radiated confidence, and frankly she was just cool."
From a parent perspective— Etta was an artist whose art did not have time to mature. I look around my home and find pictures framed from elementary school hung on the wall with what others might recognize as pieces of art. She published a poem at age 13. Watching her photograph just a few months before her death allowed me to observe what she observed —what she saw as beauty or the world. I can only describe a few to give you a sense of her. The pictures she took in Kenya were her meager beginnings. We had an opportunity to go on tented safari in Kenya only five months prior to her death. She had taken a photography class at the high school that she loved. Her father had bought her a nice camera because of her upcoming adventures, so on the Kenya trip she was in charge of the photos. Her pictures are close ups of Rhinos eyes and butts, chickens in alleyways, flowers, flowers, and more flowers, graffiti on walls — her favorite "Never Trust a Girl", children in doorways, a teenage Masai girl with her children, cows roaming thru a posh resort (which by the way charged and she and her brother had to run). Later in Bolivia this same eye of Etta continued — Beautiful Indian women with their wares, flowers blooming against rusty barbed wire, leaves to cover the whole frame of the picture, waterfalls, mountains, trees from all angles. Etta saw humanity and nature. It drew her like a baby drawn to it's mothers milk. I would have to beg her to take pictures of her Bolivian family so I just knew she wasn't living in the streets. In Kenya, although a three-week trip, there are only a handful of pictures of her family. It's hard to prove we were there. Nature and culture were her interest.
Etta loved sports. She played soccer from age six and when 14 was on a select team that won the state championship. She also played volleyball in Jr. High and High School. She spent many wonderful hours with teammates on sports fields and gyms. Her claim to fame in all sports may have been that she tried her best to always drive the coaches crazy.
Etta loved animals and had several throughout her lifetime. She got her horse at age 8. Star was a difficult creature but over the years Etta developed a loving relationship with her. She was the only human Star liked. Star tolerated me as another caretaker, but truly only liked Etta. Etta's other menagerie included a mangy dog she named Jeff, a cat named Bisky, prior to Bisky was a cat she named Fur Ball, a goat named Jazz, two geese, Dumb and Dumber, and 2 Australian sugar gliders. In March the year she died-Etta was present at the birth of her foal from Star — a half Arab half Andalusia filly that she named Rune, meaning magical letters. She loved this foal and referred to it as her own baby. Rune is a good little filly and when I am working with her— I frequently sense Etta working with her too.
Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately I was forced to put Star down less than 24 hours before Etta died. She had become quiet lame and without Etta around she had become more and more difficult to deal with. I had emailed Etta of this and she had emailed back that she was terribly saddened but she understood. Two or three days after Etta died, I had a vision of Etta walking toward Star in the Bolivian mountains, smiling and glad to see her horse. As when she died she was on her way horseback riding in the mountains, I can only hope that she still got to do it but maybe even better with her own horse. Later Kris, one of the young men on the bus with Etta, sent me a picture of the mountains where Etta died. They were the same mountains as in my vision.
I recognized that even as a little girl, Etta loved people. After three other children who have one or two good 2-3 year old friends — that Etta had tons of friends who would come to play and they remained her friends throughout her life. She was never at a loss for someone to play with because if one friend could not come she had many others to choose from. She loved her friends and drew them to her like flies to honey.
Etta went through all the varied stages of childhood. She was independent, stubborn, a smart aleck, obnoxious, curious, witty, exasperating and all the myriad of other things all children are. She was never a huggy or kissy kid and even the best one got from age three to sixteen was permission to kiss her on the forehead. All except her little sister who was allowed to kiss her anytime and in turn received kisses and hugs freely.
Etta decided to be an exchange student in 9th grade. It seemed to never be in question for her. It was so certain for her that I even forgot to consult her father regarding his permission to allow her to go. When the opportunity arrived her sophomore year, she did not hesitate. She applied and was accepted. Bolivia was not her choice. Actually it wasn't even on the possibilities list, but it was a new country for this Rotary District. Etta was chosen to go there, I think because of her outgoing personality. Maybe they wanted someone to make an outstanding impression on this new exchange country. Etta was somewhat disappointed but after a good cry, decided to make a go of it. Even though she wasn't going to the country of her choice — she wanted to have this experience in her life and was determined to have it.
When it was time to go — her friends threw her an incredible going away party. For many of them this was the last time to see her and she was truly in all her glory. She was surrounded by her friends, eating, singing, dancing, and laughing. I remember the sounds of it all that night and it was truly wonderful. Lots of beautiful varied young people having a great time celebrating someone they loved and someone who loved them. As is always Etta's luck —the pigs escaped from their pen and crashed her party. Also in true Etta form, unlike most 16 year olds who might be upset, Etta grabbed a cowboy hat and tried to ride them. The pigs retreated when they realized Etta was only going to humiliate them.
On her last night in the US, her best friends, boys and girls, spent the night. They stayed up all night talking, taking pictures, dividing up her clothes and shoes until she got back and basically just loving each others company. They then loaded up in the early morning to take her to the airport. Fun and laughter were the themes until she had to go through security and her Dad, her friends and I said a tearful goodbye. As her Dad said,"We thought it was for a year but it was for a lifetime."
Once in Bolivia, Etta had a wonderful family — the Paz's. She also made friends quickly. She at first was bummed because she had wanted to be in a big city but instead was in a small one, Montero. Soon though she was glad for where she was because she and the other two exchange students were known very quickly. She appreciated being recognized within a week or so of walking down the street. Her two comrades, Sarah and Tim, were to become dear to her. Tim, she described as witty and fun to be with. Sarah, became her souls companion and friend or as she wrote in her journal “ her Samba” (which only she and Sarah know the meaning of). Although two years difference in age Etta and Sarah developed a loving, intense friendship.
Although her friends and family here knew of her homesickness and frustration with learning the language — the Bolivians told her Dad of her smiling face, her positive attitude and her encouragement and devotion to her new Bolivian friends. Again in typical Etta fashion funny things always happened to Etta. Others may have found them defeating but Etta found humor in everything. While hanging out with her friends in the town square a sloth hanging in the trees pooped on her. The high heel shoes she wore to school made her feet numb and she swore she would never have feeling in her little toes again. Her stash of M&Ms from the US got ants. She was going shopping with Sarah one day — only to discover that the shopping mall burned down during the night. She and Sarah were going swimming on a bright sunny day— when they got to the pool in Tarijo a storm blew in and torrents of rain came. They swam anyway, to the Bolivians dismay, at least until the lightening came. Sarah tells of other wonderful stories of how oppressive the heat was and during their first rain how she, Etta and Tim danced in the warm rain to simply delight in it's refreshing touch. I do believe Etta lived to find joy and laughter in almost everything.
On her final adventure she was well on her way to loving Bolivia and to believing that this year was to be the incredible adventure she had hoped for. This trip was to take them to some amazing country. I had become so excited for her because her excitement and sense of adventure at going on this trip was so clear. Etta, Sarah, Pramod (another exchange student from Santa Cruz) and three American volunteer teachers, Kris, Matt, and Adam were traveling together. Their adventure was to take them from Santa Cruz to Tarijo ( a 25 hour bus ride) then to Tapiza, to Potosi, to Sucre and then to Cochabamba. Their stay in Tarijo was wonderful and very happy. They found each other to be delightful traveling companions. They visited vineyards, went to a festival, played, went hiking and swam in a beautiful waterfall, and enjoyed each others company. The night of their third day they began the seven-hour bus ride to Tapiza. Etta and Sarah had struggled to stay warm in the coolness of the night and to get comfortable in the cramped spaces of the bus. They had laughed and talked to their friends a great deal of the night. They had tried lying on the back seat of the bus together only to be bounced to the floor during a cruise over one of the many large bumps in the road. They laughed and were laughed at. They finally settled back into the other seat and snuggled together holding each other with arms wrapped around the other for warmth. They had even teased the four boys after finding this comfortable position that they should give up their inhibitions and try this position with each other as it was without a doubt the warmest and most comfortable. The young men didn't but Etta and Sarah did and they had fallen asleep. At 3:00 AM the driver also fell asleep and careened over the edge of the beautiful Bolivian mountain. Everyone was thrown from the bus except the four American young men. Etta and Sarah were not far apart on the mountainside in the full moon of the night. Etta suffered head and spinal trauma and died instantly. She had gone from her loving embrace with her friend “her samba” to her death. Sarah was life threateningly injured. The young American men were only minorly injured and were instrumental in saving Sarah's life and assisting all the others. Maybe Etta was helping too. Twenty-one people were on the bus and seven died. They were on that cold mountainside seven hours before the first ambulance came. The US embassy to Bolivia tried to retrieve the Americans but at 13,000 feet they were above the service altitude for their helicopters. After treatment at a tiny local hospital, the Americans and Etta were moved by vehicle to the Argentine border where an airfield was at a lower altitude. While the border gaurds were willing to admit the other Americans, they refused to admit Etta's body. The others refused to leave Etta behind so they all turned back and made the seven hour trip on that same mountain road to Tarijo. Oh-what love and loyalty! All the American's but Pramod, who stayed to complete his exchange, came back to the US after the accident. Sarah made a remarkably self-disciplined recovery and just four months after the accident headed back to finish her exchange. Adam and Kris returned to complete their volunteer stint and Matt, being already done, is seeking his next mission.
Etta's great adventure here on earth was over, but her impact on this earth seems to be continuing. We have the sense that she is pulling a few strings. She loved many and many loved her. As her step dad, Guy, says “She created chaos wherever she was but, it was a delightful kind of chaos". She seems to still be keeping people on their toes. Etta's love of people and people's love of Etta has become so evident to us. Since her death many wonderful things have occurred. Instead of flowers at her memorial service donations were made to an account that would go to the Heifer Project International, an organization that promotes self sufficiency through the giving of farm animals to people and villages to improve their lives and then gives them the opportunity to help improve others due to the offspring of their own animals. The donations were astounding. Etta's friends got together on Valentines day and chose 1 heifer, 1 water buffalo, 2 llamas, 2 goats, 1 sheep, 2 pigs, 1 group of tree saplings, 2 trios of rabbits, 1 hive of honeybees, and 3 flocks of chicks. Other donations were made by friends and loved ones and even her driving instructor who donated her $250.00 driving school fee because Etta, although she had her license, would never get to use it.
In other places, books were donated to libraries, Bibles were purchased, and contributions to scholarships and charity funds were given in her honor. The love and tribute to this child overwhelmed us.
Finally and to our great joy, in January Etta's host family, Fatima and Jaime Paz, emailed us to tell us that the Montero Rotary Club and the Salasien Priests were entering into a joint project to acquire property and develop a center for impoverished children and women and dedicating the dining hall/nutrition center in out Etta's name. We as her family always knew she was powerful, but we again were overwhelmed with how much others loved this young woman. It has since become our mission as her family and many of her friends to assist in whatever way we can to make this Etta project all that she would want it to be.
The project will offer food to children of the poor, a daycare and preschool, education and nutrition and reproductive health to the mothers, as well as, job training and household management training to improve the economic status of these mothers. The hope is to be able to provide for the nutritional needs of 100 children and a preschool for 30-40 children.
We are in awe and ever so proud of the impact Etta must have made on these kind people in her three short months in this small Bolivian city. Was it the kindness of these lovely people or the heart of this young woman who inspired such a loving legacy? Maybe it was both and just their love for humanity. It sure fits our Etta though as one of her most heard motto's was “Lets Eat”.
Through her death many children will be fed either through the animals they will raise or through her nutrition center. Countless people will feel and be touched by Etta's heart. No parents could be more proud of their child than we are of Etta.
It is hard as a parent not to lament or grieve that we will never see this precious daughter of ours graduate high school, go to college, choose a career, get married, have children, set and accomplish her goals, or the many things we dream of for our children.
I think back though and Etta graduated from high school just a few weeks after being in Bolivia. She felt a bit undeserving because she was treated as a true graduate-with cap and gown, gifts, family celebrations and lots of sheepish smiles and pictures. For this I gratefully thank the Paz's and Father Pani from Bolivia. I feel joy for her that she had this. She never went to college as a student, but for several years she spent a week in the summer at soccer camps living in the dorms and experiencing her friends and wacky dorm life. I know now her career was living and loving and laughing. She did not marry but I am grateful that in her last few months on earth she had a boyfriend, Chris, who laughed and loved with her. She told her friend Sarah, in describing the trip to Kenya that it was like a honeymoon with her family. I'm thankful for that vision. She did not have children, but I did get to experience the birth of her foal with her and see her pride and devotion to it. She chose the loveliest friends in the world; I know they will always love her. Etta set and accomplished and continues to accomplish more personal goals than the average person does in a full lifetime. I cherish all these thoughts and memories of Etta and I know that for a 16 year old she lived a lot of life and she lived it very well. A lovely woman, Linda Hunt, whose daughter also died in a bus accident in Bolivia, shared a quote with me that is so true. It says, “How could I ever have prepared for an absence the size of you.” Etta was so much to so many of us. There was truly nothing that could have prepared us for an absence the size of Etta. We can only feel honored to have been her parents, her family, and her friends and to have been touched by her.
One of the last essays she wrote for school was on the book Tuesday's With Morrie. She said about this, "Morrie is my life inspiration. You couldn't ask for more when it came to a man (or person). He was generous, wise, and a fun person to be around. That should influence everyone to be more like him. The book was successful but it is the image we should aspire to".
Like the crocus that bloom in early spring to chase away the dreary winter and bring such delight, so Etta came into this world and shared her Brilliance. Not Brilliance in the sense of intellect, but in the sense of the joy and delight she gave us. The Brilliance of her glow-those tiny fragments of light touched many and we were blessed-those of us fortunate enough to have been in that light shower. She glowed, she sparkled, and she was Brilliant. I think she will keep Brilliantly shining through us all and we have to be determined to let it.
As a symphony of water
Cascades in a never ending
Promise over stones;
As the wind whispers
Secrets to the grass;
As the trees leave
A silent music
On my tongue
As the blossoms leave
A ballet of perfume in my nose;
And as I look into my mother's eyes I see
A never ending abyss of secrets in hiding;
Then and only then;