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By DMH Commissioner Barbara A. Leadholm, M.S., M.B.A.

From time to time I have the opportunity as DMH commissioner to share an experience that is in many ways mutually life-changing for the residents of Massachusetts whom we serve and for our hard-working DMH staff.

It all began with a humble proposal to teach a new skill to a small group of patients who comprise the Arts and Social Action Group at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital Metro Boston Mental Health Unit (MBMHU), operated by the Department of Mental Health. In January 2011, this distinct group, with the help and encouragement of Shattuck staff, embarked on the ancient Japanese art of origami, folding paper cranes. The meditative practice of folding paper to create objects blossomed among these budding paper artists: as they completed one, then two, then three, then more cranes, they were empowered and encouraged to reach higher than anyone in the group at Shattuck thought possible: making 1,000 folded paper cranes as a tribute to health and wellness.  

There is a deeper, more profound meaning in this ancient activity. The origin of the project at Shattuck is rooted in the Japanese tradition of entire communities making origami cranes. According to Japanese legend, anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish, such as long life or recovery from illness or injury. In Japan, it is commonly said that folding one thousand origami cranes can make a person's wish come true – it has also become a symbol of world peace.

The dedicated members of Shattuck’s Arts and Social Action Group began folding cranes in the hospital chapel during the harsh winter days in January and February. Together the small group learned the 26 paper folding steps, slowly and diligently creating 80 paper cranes. During this process, members of the group made wishes for themselves and for the world at large. Some articulated hopes and visions that evolved into songs that the group sang together as they worked: a beautiful and heartwarming way to get through the punishing winter.

In March, it became increasingly clear to the group that in order to reach the goal of making 1,000 cranes, help was needed from a wider circle. Anyone and everyone from all corners of the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital community were invited to help in the quest to fold 1,000 cranes. Every Wednesday morning in March, the Arts and Social Action group set up tables in the hospital’s main lobby for crane making, wish writing and music making.  By showcasing this project into the main lobby, people’s curiosity was piqued and many joined in as they encountered the handful of origami artists working together. Dedication to the project was contagious, and the original group members who were the first students to learn crane folding in the hospital chapel became teachers to others new to origami. The experience was a great equalizer as patients taught doctors, unit staff, security staff, visitors and interns. A new community at Shattuck was born: together, the expanded group created 1,000 paper cranes, collectively made wishes and created beautiful music with people throughout the entire hospital. 

As the weeks passed and winter evolved into spring, the crane-folding community grew larger and stronger. The project, with its humble beginnings, grew as patients and staff learned how to fold cranes, work together, effectively interact with each other and communicate each individual’s unique skills and knowledge to others in the group.  Everyone who participated was touched by the magnitude and teamwork of this project and contributed to a scroll of good wishes, many of which are written inside individual cranes.

Cranes After nearly five months of this work by many dedicated hands, the goal of creating more than 1,000 cranes was achieved. To celebrate this community event, on May 11 the Arts and Social Action Group and the entire Shattuck Hospital community celebrated their achievement with a ceremony and installation in the hospital lobby of every paper crane created.

The community came together once again as they sang, made wishes together and hung more than 1,000 cranes, stringing them together with sparkling beads hanging from the ceiling: it’s now the first thing visitors, staff, patients and families see when entering the hospital. The cranes are an artful representation of wishes from the hearts and souls of many, and it is installed with the hope that it will bring joy, inspiration, health and wellness to everyone who passes by and witnesses its magnitude.  

I am very grateful to everyone who participated in this inspiring, beautiful project. To quote Joel Skolnick, chief operating officer of DMH’s MBMHU at Shattuck, “This amazing project could not have been done without the strength and unity of the entire Shattuck Hospital community and the people who came together to make it all happen, especially staff in the occupational therapy department Sharon Gaffney, Jenny Murphy and Caryl Beth Thomas.”

There are so many lessons to be learned here, and all of them are grounded in the simple act of folding paper to make a crane, to make a wish and to spread the hope of recovery.

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