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Wednesday, December 5, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bolivian boy to get treatment thanks to youngsters' help

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

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Tomorrow morning on the wings of generosity (actually, a 767 from Miami) a small Bolivan boy with a twisted spine will arrive at the airport. Birth defect or disease warped his back into a question mark. A mother's poverty sentenced him to an orphanage.

Now, thanks to the largess of a few Seattle-area residents and institutions, and inspired by the hopeful letters and pennies of hundreds of schoolchildren, 11-year-old Alfonso Figueroa may have a future.

Those involved say it's hard to tell who is helping whom.

This story begins with an Issaquah dentist. In 1990, Sherwin Shinn was trekking through Nepal. He saw children dying from abscessed teeth and performed emergency oral surgery on one young girl, using a pocket knife.

Seeing that something so basic as a toothbrush could save lives, Shinn and his wife, Jerri, now a retired emergency-room nurse, began to make annual trips to places such as Nepal, Costa Rica and Bolivia to dispense medical care and give out supplies.

Back in the United States, Shinn took his enthusiasm and trip photos to schools. In slide shows he included pictures of a little boy in his dentist's chair in Bolivia. It was Alfonso, who was from one of the more than 70 orphanages in Cochabamba, a city of 404,000. He had been placed there by a widowed mother too poor to care for him.

Soon Alfonso smiled from the door of the Shinns' refrigerator at home.

"He's just quiet and always smiling and a very bright kid — one of those kind of kids who just wants to help with everything," Shinn said.

Alfonso's personality may have won them over completely, but his affliction rent the Shinns' hearts: He has a 120-degree angle to his thoracic spine, or double the normal angle, which pressures the boy's heart and lungs and makes it increasingly hard for him to eat. Growing up may kill him.

The Shinns continued to visit him on their annual trips to Bolivia and continued to talk about him to Issaquah-area schoolchildren.

The children wanted to help. They became e-mail pen pals with the orphanage. Last year, children at Maple Hills Elementary School raised $900 for an operation for the boy.

Kathleen Steoger, a patient of Shinn's who created a popular PTA humanitarian program in Issaquah that is now statewide, was moved by the children's generosity. Steoger began to explore ways to get Alfonso help, while encouraging pupils to write Seattle's Swedish Medical Center and American Airlines, which sometimes aid in such cases. The letters arrived like birds, great flocks of hundreds of letters from schools both in and outside the Issaquah School District, crowding desks at the hospital and the airline. Each held the same message: Help us help him.

Swedish agreed. Dr. Ted Wagner, a Seattle surgeon who specializes in treating spinal deformities, consented to perform the operation for free. Last weekend, American Airlines provided free round-trip tickets for Alfonso and chaperones.

For Alfonso, who will arrive tomorrow at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and stay with the Shinns, the next four months are full of uncertainty.

Surgery may not even be possible. If it is, three major operations could be needed over months, in which the surgeon would remove vertebrae and insert metal rods. If all were to go well, Alfonso would be able to walk upright and would lead a fairly normal life, Wagner said.

The children and adults who have helped Alfonso say they now know the satisfaction of helping others, when charity is its own reward.

"I personally feel that this is the most important thing that kids can be learning," said Steoger, whose program has sent homemade quilts and other handmade items to children abroad, made hats for Nepalese children and raised $60 to buy two llamas for a widow in South America.

"My purpose in this program is to develop future humanitarians," she said. Yesterday, after students heard the news of Alfonso's imminent arrival, they scrambled to prepare. And they felt good.

"All of us know that if Alfonso lives, it's partly our doing," said Ben Taylor, a sixth-grader at Beaver Lake Middle School, "so I think that makes the whole class feel like they've impacted someone's life."

The 13-year-old in baggy pants smiled, flashing a retainer, then went back to hurriedly gluing an "O" to a sign-in-progress that read, in Spanish, "Welcome, Alfonso."

Chris Solomon can be reached at 206-515-5646.

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