Artist Leslie Kimiko Ward was in the midst of an Artists in Schools residency in a remote Alaska community when tragedy struck. Her story about the experience, and her response -- to fold 1,000 origami cranes -- so moved us that we asked if we could share it here. She is encouraging Facebook users to "fold a crane and post a photo of themselves holding it both to shed light on the issue of suicide prevention in rural Alaska, and to offer the residents of St. Michael some solace knowing that they are, and indeed we all are, connected to a wider network than what can be seen in this beautiful but very remote corner of the tundra."

DSC00634DSC00643This unexpected blog post came today in the form of an email. Artist Leslie Kimiko Ward was in the midst of an Artists in Schools residency in St. Michael when tragedy struck the community. Her story about the experience, and her response, so moved us that we asked if we could share it here. Rasmuson Foundation provides support to the Artists in Schools program through the Alaska State Council for the Arts.

“Well, we have been having quite the residency here in St. Michael, Alaska, a rural village of about 400 in the Bering Strait School district. Our first week went very well; the kids were clearly excited with the material I planned and we had begun preparations for our community performance.

“Everything shifted this past Saturday night, when St. Michael suffered a tragic loss. A young man, “Paba,” 22 years old, drowned in the lake just beside the school. I can not begin to tell you how deeply this affected me, witnessing the desperate search to locate him under the water, and experiencing the communal agony that followed the recovery of his lifeless body. Needless to say, I was left reeling, and struggling to find my place both as an artist and an outsider to this clearly personal tragedy. At the time, the most I could offer in the way of assistance was to gather up the children closest to me and help lead them away from the grisly images burning themselves into our memory banks. We brought the drums outside, and offered a safe alternative space until parents came to call them home.

“That night I wrote to my own family for guidance and support, and the next morning, in an effort to channel my own despair, I decided I would begin folding a gift of 1000 origami cranes in a gesture of healing. As I began cutting the paper and preparing to fold, one of the teachers here mentioned how concerned she was about the increased suicide risk in the village following a tragedy such as this one. St. Michael has already suffered 3 suicides this school year, as well as the death of 2 elders. In a village this small and remote, nearly everyone is related to each other in some fashion, so a death in the village essentially equates to the death of a family member.

“Megan’s worry struck a chord in me, as I have been struggling to make sense of the high suicide rate in Alaska since moving here 9 years ago. I have suffered the loss of nearly one friend/acquaintance/colleague each year to suicide since living here, and have felt helpless to do anything to stop what feels like a hemorrhage of our community’s bright, amazing people.

“Sometime over the course of a long day spent cutting, folding and contemplating, I decided it was time to expand my project. I launched a facebook page called “1000 Cranes for Alaska” and linked a crane folding video tutorial to the site, asking visitors to please fold a crane and post a photo of themselves holding it, both to shed light on the issue of suicide prevention in rural Alaska, and to offer the residents of this village of St. Michael some solace, knowing that they are, and indeed we all are, connected to a wider network than what can be seen in this beautiful but very remote corner of the tundra.

DSC00175“You may already know the significance of the thousand origami cranes, said to grant a wish to the folder, offered as gifts in Japan for births, weddings, anniversaries, and, thanks to the story of Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who folded cranes in an attempt to stave off her death from leukemia as a result of radiation from Hiroshima, the thousand cranes are also recognized as a symbol of world peace.

“I launched the site yesterday morning, and I don’t quite know how to explain what happened next. The kids immediately took to the project, folding cranes and posting their photos to the site. Many of them were already familiar with the story of Sadako and the Thousand Cranes, and in the wake of the recent tragedy, they were eager for the opportunity to engage in some creative positivity.

“And then the responses began to roll in. Pictures from people who heard about the site began appearing on our page. First from Anchorage, then the lower 48, many complete strangers whose pictures appeared alongside words of encouragement and hope for the people of St. Michael. By the morning of our second day in existence, we had gone global receiving our first post from Switzerland. The Anchorage Press has picked up our story, as has UAA’s Northern Light and ktuu.com, and we are adding new followers to the site at the staggering rate of nearly 100 per day. Entire organizations have begun pledging their support; one such organization, the Children’s Healing Art Project in Oregon, a foundation dedicated to providing art programs to children in hospitals battling cancer, has pledged, for one whole week, to have every employee and volunteer fold a crane at the beginning of each shift. We even have a picture from the Coast Guard on its way from Georgia (as soon as everyone in the unit learns how to fold a crane, they said).

DSC00606“This project is making a marked impact on the children here. They have requested to take paper home to fold cranes with their families, (a self imposed homework request I happily obliged), new children are showing up who have thus far been absent from summer school, and kids who only last week were quick to leave as soon as we finished our activities are staying well after the school day, playing music, freestyle dancing, folding cranes and laughing with each other. Today I had to gently encourage the middle schoolers to go home so I could finally clean up the space and get some dinner. They made sure to gather up bundles of colored paper before they went.

“So, that’s my update. I am thankful to be joined this residency with a (self funded) videographer who is faithfully documenting the process and folding cranes like a champ. We will have a DVD of the edited footage at some point, to be shared with the school and the AIS program.

“Here is a link to Facebook page if you want to join us in the effort: “1000 Cranes for Alaska.”

“Thank you so much, Artists in Schools, Alaska State Council on the Arts, and the Bering Straits School District for this opportunity to make a difference.”