Every time another mass shooting happens, the suspects’ photos take over TV screens and newspaper front pages. Their names are on radio shows, in college classrooms, and on people’s minds around the world. They seem to blend together to form a singular mask of evil, indistinguishable from one another.
Except when it’s a name you know.
Elise Bergsten faced that reality on Halloween night, 2015 when 33-year-old Noah Harpham, the son of a family friend, walked down a quiet downtown Colorado Springs sidewalk and went on a killing rampage. Caught in the deadly crosshairs were two mothers and a man riding his bicycle.
Elise struggled to find answers and found herself asking a familiar question: Why?
Instead of an answer, more questions came; just 13 days later, two more tragedies unfolded that stunned the world. In Paris, gunmen opened fire at the Bataclan Theater, killing 130 concert goers. Less than a month later, 14 people were killed at an office holiday party in San Bernardino, California.
“Why?” was still a prominent and largely unanswered question. But as Elise looked ahead, she asked herself another question: What now?
Building community through cranes
In the past, Elise had found the old Japanese practice of folding paper origami cranes to be a helpful coping mechanism following tragedy. Delicately strung-together paper cranes, called Senbazuru, are more than a Japanese decoration; they’re also associated with a popular Japanese legend. The story, which dates back to 1797, says anyone who takes on the extensive task of folding 1,000 paper cranes will be rewarded with a wish.
“I just felt like I needed to do something,” Elise said. “I decided that I wanted to fold 1,000 paper cranes, and right away thought I’d like to extend that out beyond me.“
At the time of the Colorado Springs shooting, Elise co-managed a local community arts studio. She felt others might want to join her efforts in folding 1,000 paper cranes.
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By sheer coincidence, the paper crane effort was scheduled to begin just hours after Colorado Springs was stunned with yet another shooting. This time, a lone gunman opened fire at the local Planned Parenthood facility. Three people were killed, including a security officer.
Elise told Dateline that as soon as the studio doors opened and people began grieving together, the healing began, as well.
“People got teary as they talked about it,” Elise said. “People really were processing what their experience was of the Planned Parenthood shooting.”
After several meet-ups, Elise says people began to ask what would become of the cranes. The group decided to assemble a large-scale art installation.
The white cranes, each one representing the victim of a mass shooting, would hang in front of a curtain. Beside them would hang colored cranes to represent members of the larger community who assist in the response to a tragedy. To hold them together, the team made 1,000 paper beads, and pasted magazine paper around a hula hoop at the top. Elise told Dateline the beads and magazine paper represent the media and community reaction after a mass shooting. The hula hoop signifies “unity, wholeness, the higher Self, timelessness, and the infinite.”
A nationwide reaction
Nearly four months later, the massive crane curtain made its way to a local arts center. The response, Elise says, was overwhelming.
“You couldn’t resist feeling the love,” Elise said.
The public’s positive reaction encouraged Elise to showcase the artwork to a larger audience. Since the start of the crane-building happened to be on the day of the Planned Parenthood shooting, she reached out to local Planned Parenthood leaders to see if they would hang the artwork in their office.
The Colorado Springs’ Planned Parenthood eagerly accepted Elise’s offer and hung the paper cranes in the clinic’s lobby when it reopened four months after the shooting. Word of the project spread quickly, and soon people across country wanted to participate.
“Other Planned Parenthoods across the country had volunteers who also folded cranes, so we had boxes of cranes coming in,” Vicki Cowart, President and CEO at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, said. “The cranes flew in from around the country, bringing with them this sense of care and support that was definitely important for our recovery and our healing.”
What it means now
This week marks the two-year anniversary of the shootings. Vicki says the cranes, which still hang in that Colorado Springs lobby, are a constant reminder of the local and national response.
“Now to have this beautiful symbol of that love and encouragement and support that’s living with us on display in the Colorado Springs health center, it’s an everyday reminder to all of us,” Vicki said.
While Elise’s initial effort didn’t hinge on the local shooting, she told Dateline the chain of cranes has come to reflect the community’s undeniable chain of love.
“I felt really humbled by all the people that were touched by it in a positive way,” Elise said. “My idea was really little compared to what it morphed into. And it morphed into what people needed it to be.”
The crane curtain won’t last forever. Elise says the paper will get dusty and eventually fall apart, but the community’s spirit has been forever strengthened.
“Above all, that’s what those cranes stand for: a community that cared and reached out,” Vicki said. “So we are all connected through these tangible reminders of that community.”