One more crane for Hannah

Laurie Binney with Olivia and Emma Vanderlaske
Oak Bluffs School principal Laurie Binney with Olivia (left) and Emma hold beautiful mobiles made for their sister Hannah. Photo by Susan Safford

By Julian Wise - December 21, 2006

Hundreds of paper cranes adorn the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School. Nine hundred and ninety-nine, to be exact, each lovingly handcrafted as a gesture of support for Hannah Vanderlaske, a seventh grader who is battling leukemia. Hannah is currently at Children's Hospital in Boston preparing for a bone marrow transplant at the end of the month. The paper cranes reflect the Japanese belief that if someone makes 1,000 origami cranes, their wish will come true. The student body is preparing to deliver the 999 cranes to Hannah's hospital room, where Hannah herself will make the 1,000th.

Hannah Vanderlaske is a bright, warm-hearted girl who has endured two separate bouts with cancer. The first was with Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare bone cancer. The current one is with leukemia. Despite the hardships of cancer treatment, she has maintained a positive outlook and shared her optimism with others. The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute selected Hannah's Christmas card design for their 2006 greeting card collection. The card's cover features a snow globe with a smiling snowman and decorated Christmas tree. Inside the card are the words, "May this be a season to remember and treasure."

Maya Harcourt
Charter school student Maya Harcourt happily makes paper cranes for the project. Photo by Ralph Stewart

Charter School teacher Pam Echlin reports that the students took initiative for the paper crane project from the moment they heard of Hannah's diagnosis. "We were talking about Hannah and an idea came about making cranes, that each crane would be a gift and a hope and a wish. The kids heard that, and that was it. It was their project from that point on."

Jessica Dupon, an eighth-grade friend of Hannah's, says the crane project was a special way of demonstrating support and care from the student body. "There's history behind it," she says. "It blends in the support, the history and the love we're sending her."

"Each crane is handmade by people who really love and care about her and want her to be well," adds classmate Rose Maidoff. "It sends all of our good wishes."

The first day of the project, 230 cranes were created. In the weeks that followed, students folded cranes out of newspaper, magazines, and any other material they could get their hands on.

"Everyone wanted to be part of this project because we all love Hannah and want to show our support to her," says Jessica Dupon.

Prior to joining the Charter School community, Hannah attended the Oak Bluffs School. Her former classmates in Oak Bluffs joined the project by stringing hundreds of the cranes into hanging mobiles. Hannah's sisters, Olivia, a second-grader, and Emma, in fifth grade, are both students at the Oak Bluffs School. Both girls helped make the mobiles. Oak Bluffs School principal Laurie Binney praised the collaboration between the two schools.

Paper cranes
Paper cranes made by Charter School students were made into mobiles to hang in Hannah Vanderlaske's hospital room. Photo by Susan Safford

Several weeks ago Hannah received a visit in her hospital room from classmates Zada Clarke, Chloe Mclane, Alicia Mendoza, and Olivia Cameron. Her friends entered the cancer ward with some nervousness, yet within moments their apprehension melted away and the schoolmates were giggling and goofing around.

"We were so happy to see her, and she was so happy to see us," says Alicia Mendoza. "We did so many fun things, we were singing and dancing. All the sadness melted away and we just had fun. She's still our same old friend."

Before long, other pediatric cancer patients were joining in the merriment. The mood of the entire ward was lit up by the visit.

Many of Hannah's friends and families have kept in touch with Hannah via Carepages, an online forum for hospitalized children that allows them to give and receive messages from loved ones.

On her Carepages blog, Hannah's December 8 entry reads , "I finished "Of Mice and Men yesterday. I DID NOT LIKE THIS BOOK!!! It was wayyyyyyyy too sad! Also, I have run out of iTunes money, so people who keep asking what to get, iTunes cards are definitely something I need!! But really, you guys don't need to send or give me anything. Your support is more than enough!" In other entries she describes blood cell counts and the upcoming bone marrow transplant alongside typical preteen girl gossip and banter.

Hannah's friends have been inspired by her enduring optimism in the face of the harrowing cancer treatments. "I learned about courage from Hannah," Jessica Dupon says. "When you imagine someone being diagnosed with cancer twice, you'd think of them as being devastated, but Hannah's always sounded so happy. She doesn't dwell on being sad and depressed, she's just trying to get through it with a positive attitude. You take things for granted until you see something like this happen."

"Your problems seem really small compared to that," adds classmate Olivia Cameron.

The school's response to Hannah's illness has been a vivid illustration of a student body coming together in a time of need.

"It shows we really do care about Hannah and really hope she gets better," says Alicia Mendoza. "We're praying all the time she's doing well."

"It makes me feel safe because if something like that was going to happen to me then I'd know everyone else would help me out," adds Olivia Cameron.

Charter School Director Bob Moore says the student response is a testament to the impact Hannah's courage has made on the school. "Everyone did a great job, to the person. It makes a comment on the wonderful people in our community. Hannah has been given strength and hope and happiness through the individual as well as the group efforts of our school community."