Tina So and Mia Thielbar were pre-International Baccalaureate freshman at Land O’ Lakes High School when they began a project they call “Cranes for Cancer.”
Now, more than three years later, they are seniors — and they are still involved with the project to handcraft paper origami cranes for people afflicted with cancer.
The goal is to instill hope, and the idea was spawned in August 2013.
At the time, Marilyn Ling, a reading teacher at the high school, was battling ovarian cancer. As a show of empathy, So and Thielbar together assembled 1,000 paper cranes after their Inquiry Skills teacher, Angelle Damalos, relayed the gesture’s significance in class one day.
In Japanese culture, cranes are a traditional sign of long life and good fortune. Other cultures, meanwhile, fold 1,000 paper stars to make a wish.
The ambitious crane project took four months to complete.
They first used post-it notes, then progressed to traditional origami paper.
Cranes were also sculpted in an assortment of colors — pink, gold and blue.
“We had one that would flap,” So said, “and, we had one that just looks prettier because it has a stomach to it.”
It required some trial and error.
“At first, it took us a while,” So said. “Initially, we were not very good at it.”
Eventually, they improved.
“We worked consistently,” Thielbar said. “We did it everyday; whenever there was free time in class, we’d work on it.”
The pair never actually met Ling.
“(Ling) was sick, and she didn’t want us to see her in her condition,” So said.
Damalos, instead, presented the 1,000 cranes to her that December.
Ling passed away in April 2014.
The students, however, have continued their efforts.
They’ve since volunteered at Shriner’s Hospital in Tampa, where they distributed over 500 cranes to children surgical patients.
In multiple hospital visits, So and Thielbar taught patients the origami art form, and assisted them with crane decorations.
“It’s sort of a distraction for them,” Thielbar said, “so that they’re not as worried to…see the doctor.”
The pair, too, sold cranes at various Relay for Life events, helping to raise money for cancer-afflicted patients.
“We always have wanted to share cranes with people,” Thielbar said. “We make them whenever we can.”
The cranes, they believe, help cancer sufferers hold onto their faith during personal struggles.
“Positivity can change everything,” So said. “Even if it can’t cure you, it can prolong your life; you can enjoy that prolonged time.
“Without hope, it’s a losing battle.”
The philanthropic journey has been fulfilling — for both.
“I really enjoy reaching out to people like that,” So said, “and it has inspired me to be a better person, like evaluate my actions and values. Overall, it just really makes me feel really good to help people.”
“We just want to serve as more of an inspiration to our peers — to be more kind toward other people,” said Thielbar, “and respectful of the things they might be going through.”
In other words, expressing sympathy.
“That’s one of the values that I feel is being lost in our culture,” Thielbar said.
“A lot of people are losing empathy and compassion, and generosity towards other people.”
Besides “Cranes for Cancer,” the duo has other grandiose plans on the horizon.
“We still want to continue the efforts of helping people,” Thielbar said, “but, we want to make a bigger impact. We’re still working on what would that impact be — how to affect more people.”
That may include additional fundraising efforts for cancer patients.
“I feel like that would make a bigger impact financially for a lot of people, because I know that’s a big struggle,” said Thielbar.
“But, we also want to be like an inspiration to other people.”
They’ve already inspired Jeff Morgenstein, an assistant principal.
“Seeing Mia and Tina use their creativity and compassion in order to improve the lives of others is greatly in tune with our (school) mission statement,” Morgenstein said, via email.
He continued: “To say that I’m proud of them is an understatement. It is through these meaningful actions here in the community that they are truly changing the world.”
Beyond high school, Thielbar plans to study educational administration at the University of South Florida, and aspires to become a school principal, someday.
So is considering the University of Florida, where she would like to study psychology.
Published December 28, 2016