WINCHESTER – Students from Mountain Laurel Montessori School in Front Royal have installed a wishing tree at the Valley Health Cancer Center at Winchester Medical Center.

“I like to think of it as more of a hope tree,” said Dr. Larry Ponce, corporate director of oncology at the medical center.

Ponce attended a workshop this week where the students taught him, as well as other hospital staff, volunteers, and each other how to make origami cranes to hang on the tree. On the crane were written messages of hope.

“I love it,” 12-year-old Mikayla Speet said after hanging a crane on the tree. “I love making cranes, and I love teaching people to make cranes.”

The seventh-grader said she would do the workshop again or also try other forms of origami if given the chance.

“Yes, definitely,” she said.

At the workshop, 14-year-old Brooke Owens was teaching hospital employee Debra Denitto how to make a crane, while Colin Kuzmick, 13, and Joseph Trumpetto, 12, were instructing Ponce.

“Not bad. It looks good,” Brooke told Denitto, coordinator of Oncology Community Outreach Services at the medical center, assessing her finished crane. “It takes awhile to get the hang of it.”

Brooke said art teacher Mary Cook had been teaching the class to make cranes for about three weeks,

“I think it’s fun,” she said. “Once you kind of know what you’re doing, it’s just nice.”

Cook said the idea for the tree installation came from a desire to offer hope to others.

A few years ago, she led an art installation called Sticks and Stones, featuring a collection of branches that the students wrapped in yarn and decorated at the base with stones bearing “kind messages.”

They first displayed the installation at Samuels Library in Front Royal before it traveled to the Department of Education in Washington to stay for about a year.

“It kind of had an anti-bullying message,” Cook said. The name played off the false but oft-repeated mantra, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

Instead of harmful words, she said, the stones at the base of the yarn-bombed tree carried “words of encouragement.”

This school year, her 10 art students spent six weeks of class time building the hope tree for a Feb. 15 exhibit at the Blue Ridge Arts Council in Winchester. It stayed there until mid-April when a Mountain Laurel Montessori family purchased the tree and donated it for a permanent installation at the cancer center.

The idea for the workshop developed after surgeon Patrick Wagner asked Cook’s class to offer a program at the hospital.

“I taught them how to make the cranes,” Cook said. Now, the students are tasked with teaching others, and Cook said, “they’ll do a great job.”

Art supplies will remain on site at the cancer center, with instructions from the class on how patients and visitors can make their own cranes to hang on the tree, Denitto said.

“We’re just honored to have it here and be able to share with our patients,” she said.

“I think it’s amazing, actually. I just like the idea of putting the sentiments inside.”

While some of the students taught hospital staff during the workshop, sixth-grader Cole Jordan, 11, sat beside fourth-grader Michael DeMato, 9, teaching him how to make his own crane.

“See, the funny thing is, this is practice for you and for me,” Cole told the younger student. “You’re practicing to make them, and I’m practicing to teach people.”

Contact Josette Keelor at