MANATEE -- One thousand paper cranes handcrafted by sculpture students at Lee Middle School are in flight, headed across the country to the mayor of San Bernardino, Calif.
The 1,000 paper cranes are part of an old legend, which says those who blow a wish into each crane as it's created will have that wish granted. Students in Dudley Leigh's classes are hoping their cranes bring peace and love to those affected by the mass shootings there two weeks ago.
"We don't want to ignore it," said 14-year-old Katiana Zielinski, one of the eighth-graders involved in the project. "You couldn't go anywhere without hearing about it."
On Dec. 2, two assailants opened fire at a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center, a social services office in San Bernardino that helps people with developmental disabilities. Fourteen people were killed and another 21 were wounded. It was the latest in a string of violent attacks across the nation and the world. The timing coincided with a new unit in Leigh's class, one that focuses on social commentary: How can art make a statement, and how can art speak to people?
"We wanted to let them know how much we cared, we wanted to send them gifts of peace," Leigh said.
With the holidays quickly approaching, Leigh said the chatter among her students was the typical kid talk -- what kind of presents they wanted. It was all about receiving.
"I heard the kids talking a lot about getting, getting, getting. I wanted to talk to them about what can you give," she said.
The names of the 14 San Bernardino victims are written on Leigh's whiteboard, and the three sculpture classes involved in the project have spent time each period learning about the victims.
Daniel Kaufman ran the coffee shop at the center. Michael Wetzel was the father of six. Yvette Velasco worked examining restaurants for health code violations, Victims' ages ranged from 26 to 60.
As the students folded the paper cranes in class, the names sat on the board as a reminder.
"We can understand how they feel," said Nicole Llorente, a 13-year-old eighth-grader.
The legend of 1,000 paper cranes has its roots in Japanese culture, and the students were introduced to the legend from Sadako Sasaki, who became famous for her own attempt to fold 1,000 cranes in the 1950s.
When Sadako was 2, she was exposed to radiation from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. She then developed leukemia and she learned the ancient tradition about the 1,000 paper cranes. Inspired to follow the legend, Sadako folded paper cranes in her hospital bed, praying for world peace. Sadako died when she was 12, before she could finish.
As a tribute to her, Sadako's classmates folded the remaining cranes, and she was buried with all 1,000 cranes. A book was published about the attempt, and Leigh's students read the book before beginning the project.
After school Wednesday, Leigh sent the cranes out to California, hoping they reach the mayor before the end of the week, so they can be distributed to family, friends and employees who were affected.
"We want to show that we care," said Boris Atanasov, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Lee.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter@MeghinDelaney.