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Highlands middle schoolers create silent reminder of genocide

| Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 7:23 a.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Highlands Middle School eighth-graders from left, Claire Signorella, Gavin Jones, and Jenna Held begin unloading the showcase of symbolic bones, skulls, and masks that represent the victims of genocide in Rwanda and other countries.

The bones will tell the story.

In June, handmade symbolic bones will be spread across the National Mall in Washington in an arts-meets-activism project.

It's meant to bring attention to the fact that genocide isn't just a subject of history, but that it's happening today.

More than 200 bones crafted from newspaper by students at Highlands Middle School will be among them.

Arts teacher Louise Harvilla learned of the One Million Bones project and got students working. It became an extension of their study of the Holocaust.

“Most people go about their daily lives and think Hitler and genocide are done, that it's in the past. It's not,” Harvilla said. “It still goes on today.”

Highlands Middle School students were scheduled to leave on Wednesday for Washington for the annual class field trip to the nation's capital. They are taking their symbolic bones to deliver to a representative of the project.

Their bones will be added to others crafted by students, artists and activists from all 50 states and 28 countries to honor victims and survivors of genocides and mass atrocities, said Naomi Natale, founder and director of One Million Bones, based in New Mexico.

More than 1,000 schools across the country are participating, she said.

Natale said she started One Million Bones in 2009 to bring attention to genocide and mass atrocities in places such as Sudan, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma and Somalia.

It will culminate with the installation scheduled for June 8-10 at the National Mall.

“These conflicts go on with little attention paid to them and next to no action taken,” she said. “I'm interested in how we can connect people emotionally to an issue and personally to an issue. I think it's a role art can play.”

Education is a major component of the effort.

“One of the things we found out doing this work is how many adults, college students and high school students don't know what genocide is, let alone that it happens today,” Natale said. “We use the symbol of the bone to remind us that we belong to each other, and to recognize our common humanity.”

As part of the project, the Bezos Family Foundation, through its Students Rebuild initiative, will donate up to $500,000 to the humanitarian organization CARE, which will use the money for relief efforts in the Congo and Somalia.

Highlands Middle School is among 800 teams registered for One Million Bones through Students Rebuild, said Sabrina Urquhart, manager of Students Rebuild. One Million Bones is the third “challenge” it has issued to students and educators.

Students Rebuild was founded to raise money to rebuild schools in Haiti after a devastating earthquake in January 2010. Its second project was in Japan, after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

“The idea is that we connect with an organization that is already under way,” Urquhart said. “They're working on an issue or project and we partner with them.”

Natale said the amount of bones Highlands Middle School students have made is “fantastic.”

“All those bones will represent their voices and their actions,” Natale said. “Their voices and their actions will be represented in a very powerful and sacred space on the National Mall, even if they can't join us in person.”

Harvilla said students across all of the middle school's grades shaped rolled up newspaper into thigh bones, arm bones and ribs.

Students also wrote poems, some of which will be inscribed onto the bones.

“It's probably the first time as an art teacher I've been able to involve students on a national level,” she said. “It's opening their eyes to something we didn't realize existed as we go about our daily lives.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or brittmeyer@tribweb.com.

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