Hope soars high in St. Michael

Artist Leslie Kimiko Ward after school, folding cranes with children on the playground. Photos courtesy Leslie Ward

When tragedy falls, more than families suffer. The officials trying to maintain order suffer, the volunteers trying to save lives suffer, neighbors suffer and even the bystanders suffer sorrow, and need a release for their grief.

Robert Prince, a 23-year-old man visiting his mother in St. Michael, Alaska died in a snowmachining accident on Saturday, June 11 while attempting to skip the machine across a lake back to the village. A good portion of the village turned out to try and save him after his machine stalled and he sank beneath the surface. After nearly an hour of dredging the pond, his body was recovered.

“Everybody started trying to dredge the pond,” said Leslie Ward, a UAA Dance professor, “Then all of a sudden, the whole crowd just erupted in screams, and people were falling on top of each other, and waving their arms in front of their faces. You could tell that they’d found him, and that it was not good.”

Ward was in St. Michael for two weeks as part of an artist residence through the Artists in Schools program, during which she taught dance and drumming to the children at Anthony A. Andrews School. One week in, she bore witness to the village’s efforts to save Prince, along with many others, including children at the school.

“Someone screamed to get the kids away from there, because there were kids gathered all around, including the students that I had by me, so I gathered up the kids that were by me, and called for some others and took them to the playground,” said Ward.

Deeply affected by the event and unsure how to cope, Ward began folding paper cranes that night to keep herself busy in an effort to keep her mind off of it. The folding of paper cranes has a special meaning to Ward; she grew up with the tradition of folding 1000 cranes and gifting them to others. In Japanese lore, if an individual folds 1000 paper cranes, they are granted a wish; it is common practice to fold 1000 cranes and gift them to others in an expression of your wish for them, whether it be to gain health, have a happy marriage or celebrate a birthday.

Megan Stuppy, a special education teacher at Anthony A. Andrews School, expressed concern to Ward of a possible suicide in the wake of the tragedy. According to Stuppy, the village of roughly 400 had already lost three citizens to suicide that year, and two village elders had died as well.

Artist Leslie Kimiko Ward running in front of the school with completed 1000 cranes.
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“I started worrying about the people who didn’t have someone to remind them of their value to the world. I conveyed this to Leslie who almost immediately knew she needed to do something,” said Stuppy.

Stuppy’s worry stemmed from the fact that, in the village, almost everyone is related to one another in one form or another. Her own boyfriend is the deceased’s uncle, who took the death of his nephew especially hard.

It was then that Ward decided to turn her small method of coping into something larger for the entire village of St. Michael. She taught her students how told fold cranes, and created a Facebook page dedicated to the project, where anyone could post a picture of themselves holding a paper crane in support. In her blog Ward writes that the project isn’t about creating something “epic,” but that it is about busying oneself while grieving until you realize that, through this thing, you “begin living again.”

“My hope for the “1000 Cranes for Alaska” project is that it offers up one such tiny opportunity, and before you know it, you’re plugged in to an instant and growing network of support and creative inspiration,” said Ward.

Since its start on Sunday, June 12, the Facebook page (called “1000 Cranes for Alaska) has amassed 363 “likes,” and has had its Wall peppered with pictures of handmade paper cranes from around the state and country. It continues to grow daily.

Locally, in St. Michael, Ward and her students performed dance and drumming in front of a large collection of community members on Thursday, June 16, as had been planned before the events that led to the grassroots “suicide prevention” movement. At the end, Ward explained the project she and her students had taken on, and presented the 1000 cranes (which had been completed on Wednesday, June 15) to the audience. Children held strings of cranes proudly in their hands as they walked from the back of the room, and the audience cried.

“They came into the gym where we were holding the show and you could see it on their faces that they were so proud of what they’d done,” Ward said, “They faced the audience, and everybody just cried harder…It think it was something that was very healing for the community just to see the image of the kids and their efforts.”

The mother of the deceased was at her son’s funeral in Kotlik at the time of the presentation, and was unaware of the gesture her son’s death had inspired. The cranes will be on display in the school however, so that students and

Teacher Julie Meyer and St. Michael students trace handprints onto a giant crane, to be given out as a raffle prize following a community performance.

teachers returning in the fall will have a reminder that they can make a difference.

But the movement didn’t stop when the performance was over; some are still keeping it alive. According to Ward, Chloe Akers, a UAA student who recently started her own business crafting products for children, will be hosting the 1000 Cranes for Alaska project at her booth for upcoming Saturday markets (July 2, 9, 16 and 23). Her business’s name is The Snowy Owl.

Stuppy is also dedicated to keeping the movement going. “At the beginning of the school year, we’ll have an assembly to share with the entire school what we did this summer. We’ll discuss the story of the 1000 cranes, and we will make a plan as a school to continue folding cranes when members of the community need them. It won’t stop here; I won’t let that happen.”