Etta Projects: Getting All Bocked Up in Bolivia

I recently had a tooth extracted. It was not a totally unpleasant experience, thanks to plenty of Novocaine and a generous serving of nitrous oxide gas.

Speaking of teeth …

Today, I attended a presentation at the South Kitsap Rotary meeting in Port Orchard where local dentist Chris Bock told us about how both he and his black lab had stomach upsets on Thanksgiving. Something about dog barf in the back seat and trading in his truck for a new one on Black Friday. Believe me, it was funnier when Bock told it. Turns out the dentist is quite a comedian. Doesn’t even need laughing gas.

Bock was part of a team of dental professionals and other community members who traveled to Bolivia in October on behalf of Etta Projects. The nonprofit organization was started by South Kitsap’s Pennye Nixon-West in memory of her daughter Etta Turner, who died in Bolivia while on a Rotary exchange visit.

Pennye has been bringing groups of Rotary members and others to Bolivia to help out at the two family centers, called comedors, where the poorest residents of Montero (Etta’s home town while on exchange) can come for food and vocational training. The idea of bringing dentists was new this year.

As Bock tells it, the people of Montero, including the children, are in desperate need of dental care. He showed a picture of one four-year-old girl who had nothing but decayed stumps in her upper jaw. He told of how the children would cry, “No, alicante!” referring to the plyers their parents use at home to pull teeth because no dental care is available to their families. Getting them numb was no problem; they had never seen a needle.

Bock described the makeshift dental facilities the team set up in various locations in and around Montero, using equipment donated or purchased with monetary donations from Rotary clubs and community members. He described the conditions, 85 to 90 degrees and humid, no AC, that forced him to wear a surgical cap to keep the sweat out of his face. Over the 10-day visit, the team served 185 dental patients, performing extractions and other work that in the United States would have cost as much as $128,000 all for a miniscule fraction of the cost. They left the big equipment down there so other dental teams can visit.

Bock told about how close the team felt to some of their young patients, the little girl who always gave people flowers, the old woman who made two trips by motorcycle to get a total of 10 teeth pulled.

Despite the intense poverty, there were plenty of lighter moments. He showed pictures of himself making balloon creatures for the kids out of rubber gloves, and pictures of some gorgeous scenery on a trip outside the town.

Bock talked about the local beer, made by German immigrants, Bock beer, and how great it tasted at the end of a long sweaty day. The local expression for overindulging in alcohol is “getting all bocked up.” When the residents learned his last name, they’d call out, “Hey, Bock!”

Bock described the feeling of gratification they got resolving dental pain that literally interferes with daily activities of living, eating, going to school, sleeping.

“We know there’s going to be kids sleeping better at night,” he said.

After I wrote the story announcing the mission to Montero, I got a phone message from an anonymous caller who couldn’t figure out why we need to send people out of the country, when there are plenty of people here with bad teeth who can’t afford dental care.

“There’s sad stories all over the world, but let’s take care of our sad stories here in the U.S.A,” the caller said.

It’s true, poverty in Kitsap County forces some local folks going without dental care to end up in the emergency room. However, there is a local program for people like the caller, who said he can’t afford dental care. A group of dentists have started a program that allows those folks to barter community service for dental care.

You can support Etta Projects this holdiay season by buying your Christmas tree at Cedar Springs Pavilion by the Lakes, 7354 Bethel Burley Road SE in Port Orchard (98367). The tree farm is open now through Dec. 21, 4-7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Directions: On Highway 16, take the Mullenix exit; turn left if coming from Tacoma, right if from Bremerton. Come to the stop sign (0.4 mile), turn right onto Bethel-Burley Road SE; go one mile and look for the sign with the Etta Projects logo.

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