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1,000 cranes for President Carter

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Exchange students bring paper birds for good health

AMERICUS — They flew over Sumter County in small, single-engine airplanes, visited National Park Service Sites at Andersonville and Plains, saw an underwater marriage proposal at the Flint River Aquarium, visited schools in the district where students performed for them, and ate food they had never tasted before in their lives. Although they had a full and rewarding visit, it was the one part they missed this year that caused them to come together as a community and create by hand 1,000 paper origami birds.

“We are all so worried about the health of President Carter,” said Japanese delegation member Sayoko Sakai. “There is a Japanese belief that if you give a person a thousand of these paper cranes, you are hoping they will recover from their illness.”

The exchange program is part of a unique cultural exchange offered through the school district whereby students and families from Sumter County Schools host students and adult delegates from Miyoshi City, Japan. Then in March, local students will have the opportunity to travel to Japan as guests of the Japanese. Jimmy Carter inspired the exchange, which has gone on for 25 years.

Miyoshi City is in the Hiroshima Prefecture, near the city where the atomic bomb was dropped during World War II. One-thousand paper cranes have become a symbol of peace and wellness when a young survivor of the bombing, Sadako Sasaki, came to believe that creating the thousand cranes from the Japanese origami tradition of paper folding would help her survive the leukemia that overcame her 10 years after the blast.

Just as the Japanese were traveling from Atlanta to Americus, Jimmy Carter was holding a press conference announcing to the world that he would soon be undergoing treatments for cancer. However, word of the former president’s illness had gotten to the delegation just days before their departure for the states. Like those who had been alive during the assassination of John F. Kennedy, each of the members of the Japanese delegation can recall exactly where they were when they heard the news of Carter’s cancer.

The paper cranes were presented to Annette Wise, director of Education at the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, at the time and place in their tour where, for the past quarter-century, the group would have met with the former president who helped to create the exchange.

“Because we found out just before we left, it took an enormous effort on the part of everyone in the city to make all of the birds,” said Sasaki. “By the time we were taking the train to the airport in Japan, we were still stringing them together.”

For two of the members of the delegation, this trip marked a coming of age, as they had originally visited Americus as students about a decade earlier and now they returned as teachers.