Chilmark teacher’s origami outreach to Japan earthquake victims

— Photo by Ralph Stewart

Perhaps a thousand dollar bills or more will fly from Martha’s Vineyard to Japan on the metaphorical wings of 1,000 origami cranes, to aid earthquake and tsunami victims in that Asian country, thanks to the efforts of students at the Chilmark School.

The fundraising and awareness idea was spearheaded by Chilmark School teacher Susan Larsen, who had lived in Japan as a young girl, from 1967 to 1969, when her father was stationed there as a pilot. In the aftermath of the March 11 natural disaster in Japan, she wrote to the president of the Japan Society of Boston, Peter Grilli, who also happens to be a longtime seasonal Vineyarder. Ms. Larsen had seen a TV segment about the society’s Japan disaster relief drive.

The society’s project is called “Senbazuru,” a concept that involves folding 1,000 origami paper cranes as wishes for the wellbeing of others. An ancient Japanese legend promises that anyone who folds 1,000 origami cranes will be granted a wish, such as long life or recovery from illness or injury. (Cranes, considered holy creatures in Japan, are said to live for 1,000 years.)

“Since we live and work on an Island, I thought this would be a meaningful way we can help the people of the island nation of Japan,” she explained.

Ms. Larsen has begun her own effort, “Martha’s Vineyard Senbazuru.” She asks Islanders to construct origami cranes and make an optional donation (she suggests a dollar) for presentation to Japanese officials.

Ms. Larsen said that the effort will continue until 1,000 cranes have been received. The Japan Society of Boston will then present the cranes, strung together with the names of their makers inscribed on each, to the Consul General of Japan in Boston, as symbolic of Islanders’ and students’ wishes and prayers.

The Martha’s Vineyard Times has volunteered to support the effort with a series of ads that describe the campaign and are sized to be folded into an origami crane.

The week after the March double disaster, which also triggered the radiation leaks from the Fukushima nuclear power station, Ms. Larsen asked students to offer words associated with Japan. Alarmingly, but not surprisingly under the circumstances, they said “earthquake,” “tsunami,” and “radiation.” She took this as an opportunity for cultural education, offering insights into the Japanese people and their traditions.

On Wednesday, a dozen students from kindergarten through fifth grade, huddled around a table in the Chilmark School lobby, guided by Ms. Larsen in making the cranes. (Video footage of the students in action will be found on The Times website, at About two dozen cranes had already been made and were beginning to fill a basket.

“We’re not going to stop till we reach one thousand,” fourth grader Kelly Klaren said with confidence.

Second grader Noah Glasgow, who claimed to have “made origami a million times,” said he hoped these would indeed help assuage the suffering of those affected in Japan (though he said it in less highfalutin’ language).

Rachaya Lane, a fifth grader who is Ms. Larsen’s designated assistant, was making cranes at breakneck speed while also helping others figure out the art of origami. She summed up the benefits of all kinds of altruism with a simplicity that only children can manage to turn into profundity: “It feels nice to do good for others in need.”

“This kind of sentiment is coming at us from all parts of the U.S. now,” Mr. Grilli said by telephone Wednesday morning. “But it’s especially moving for me coming from the kids at the Chilmark School — for one, because my wife and our families have been so close to the Vineyard for so long; but also to imagine kids from a small school in a small town on a small Island, connecting with the people of an island nation 8,000 miles away.”

He said some $500,000 had already been raised since the relief effort was announced by the Japan Society of Boston, oldest of more than 35 Japan-America societies in the United States. He emphasized, however, that the sentiment the cranes represent was as important as the financial contribution — if not more so.

Cranes and monetary donations (suggested but not mandatory) may be brought to the Chilmark School or mailed directly to Mrs. Larsen.

Checks should be made out to “Japanese Disaster Relief Fund – Boston.”

Ms. Larsen’s mailing address is: 108 Hammett Lane, Chilmark, MA 02535.

Ms. Larsen can be reached at 508-645-3805 or by email at

For more information on the Japan Society of Boston and its relief effort go to: