UW News

January 29, 2009

UW staffer and her puppets head to Bangladesh to teach kids about tooth care

Mrs. Periwinkle and her pal Possum, an engaging young puppet, are taking their show on the road. They’re going to rural western Bangladesh in February to teach youngsters about tooth brushing.

Mrs. Periwinkle is actually Jennifer Carroll, a program coordinator in the UW Department of Economics. In former lives, Carroll has been a ballet dancer and a dental assistant. She’s also known for her artwork, including one of 100 pigs decorated to celebrate the 2007 centennial of Pike Place Market (see our story here). Since 1998, Carroll has also been a member of Thistle Theatre, a Seattle group that stages professional puppet shows.

Puppetry attracts Carroll because as she ages, dancing has become harder, she said, “but puppets can always dance.”

Carroll is part of a troupe at Thistle Theatre that performs Bunraku — traditional Japanese puppetry that involves intricate puppets operated by actors dressed in black. “The puppeteers are invisible, but they sing, dance, have sword fights — it’s tightly choreographed so things move in perfect harmony,” Carroll said.

As a dancer, she already knew how to move, and that made learning puppetry easier. “I love the shows because puppets can do anything,” she said. “I also love the way puppetry combines acting and dancing.”

In their show, Possum and Mrs. Periwinkle take children on a hunt for a magic butterfly that includes stops at a magic wishing well and the king of the frogs, two puppets Carroll also operates.

Along the journey, Possum and Mrs. Periwinkle discuss his new tooth and how to care for it. Initially, Possum was to tell the children to brush three times a day, after every meal, but Carroll had to alter the script after learning that in rural Bangladesh, children don’t always eat three meals a day — sometimes there’s not enough food.

Carroll knows some Bengali, but for the sake of simplicity, a translator will speak both Possum’s words and those of Mrs. Periwinkle.

Vickie Corrin, a staff member in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, will assist Carroll on the trip. She’ll also talk with administrators at Nalta Hospital in southwest Bangladesh about service learning possibilities for UW students.

Carroll’s trip is an experiment, part of Nalta Hospital’s outreach to explain basic oral hygiene to ordinary people, said Dr. George Bagby, a Spokane resident and former board member of Prosthetics Outreach. He financed construction of the hospital and augmented support from Rotary International and Lions International.

Doreen Fox Kelsey, who’s written Rotary grants for such things as cataract surgeries at Nalta Hospital and is helping organize the trip, said volunteers on such trips find rich experience. “When you go as a volunteer, you get more than you give. In our troubled world, it’s important for people to know each other as fellow citizens, to relate as people with common needs.”

As a prelude to her Bangladesh trip, Carroll will perform as Mrs. Periwinkle at noon Friday, Jan. 30, at the UW Medical Center Cafe C & D. It’s part of Meet the Charities, a monthly program sponsored by the UW Combined Fund Drive that features participating charities and the ways UW donations make a difference. The Prosthetics Outreach Foundation, a Seattle-based nonprofit which helps people in developing countries obtain replacement limbs, is featured this month; it’s also sponsoring the trip to Bangladesh.