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Jeff Cotter builds a tree of hope with a thousand cranes

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Jeff Cotter, founder and president of the Rainbow World Fund, holds some origami wishes that go on the nonprofit’s World Tree of Hope each year on Friday, Oct. 5, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Built by careful placement of thousands of origami cranes with children’s wishes like “peace and education” and “no fighting” written into each fold, every year around this time, Jeff Cotter and his volunteer staff at the humanitarian aid organization, Rainbow World Fund begin preparations for The Tree of Hope and its seasonal display in the City Hall Rotunda. This year, however, the tree’s fate is unknown.

“We heard from the mayor’s office that they cancelled the tree,” said Cotter. “We don’t know why, they won’t give us a reason. We’ve been trying to get a meeting with Mayor Breed for seven weeks,” he said, counting the days to Thanksgiving weekend when work on the 60-hour job of decorating the tree would normally begin (the mayor’s office wasn’t taking our call either).

Cotter founded Rainbow World Fund (RWF) in 2000 to channel the LGBTQ’s community organizing capabilities and resilience by delivering resources to people across the globe, specifically women and children living in extreme poverty, along with a less tangible offering: hope.

“Our community knows how to express love, compassion and connection with the world,” he said. “We came together during the struggle with HIV/AIDS and for our own fight for civil rights.”

Since its founding, RWF has organized 14 humanitarian trips to Cuba and Guatemala and has sent supplies to Zimbabwe and regions in India; it has funded summer camps for children living with HIV and cancer in Cuba and helped to create networks in the Middle East and Central America so trans people can escape danger and secure safe housing. The Tree of Hope is a piece of RWF’s larger mission.

“It’s a labor of love and a symbol of global unity and hope,” said Cotter of the tree he conceived with Paul Stankiewicz in 2006, his boyfriend at the time. They were inspired by Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, the true story of Sadako Sasaki who survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima at age two then suffered complications of leukemia. During her arduous hospital stay, Sasaki folded hundreds of origami cranes, in keeping with the Japanese legend that she who folds a thousand cranes will be granted a wish. When she died at age 12, as a version of the story goes, her classmates continued to fold and buried her with the thousand cranes.

“The origami crane wasn’t associated with the world peace but though her story, it became a symbol,” explained Cotter of the Sasaki peace monuments all over the world. “We thought that’s really beautiful. What can we do?” and the Tree of Hope was born.

Jeff Cotter, founder and president of the Rainbow World Fund, holds some origami wishes that go on the nonprofit’s World Tree of Hope each year on Friday, Oct. 5, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

“At the time I’d never folded a piece of origami in my life,” said Cotter, but with help from designer Stanlee Gatti, the Origami Society and Paper Tree, Japantown’s origami store, the tree was first installed in City Hall in 2006. For 12 years, the tree has engaged local community in cross cultural collaboration, an extension of the work Rainbow World Fund does internationally.

“The fund has helped trans people in danger in Iraq and Syria by paying for plane flights to Lebanon where they may start their asylum cases.”

“We’ve provided safe housing for LGBT people persecuted in Uganda, we fund ecumenical work with churches struggling with the LGBT question, and we’ve raised funds for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico,” he said.

RWF is currently working to coordinate an effort with gay rights activist Mariela Castro (daughter of Raúl and niece of Fidel) to bring PRIDE to Cuba.

”The idea is to tap into the LGBT community’s compassion,” said Cotter.

Cotter’s personal story has its own international dimension. He was born to Irish parents and adopted by Americans who were working in intelligence and living abroad.

As a child, Cotter wondered what happened to kids who weren’t adopted like he and his brother were. He’d heard about the Concert for Bangladesh, organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar and the first all-star concert to provide refugee and famine relief, and he wondered some more.

“They used to tell us to finish everything on our plate because there were children starving in Africa and China. I wanted to know why they were starving,” he said.

After attending Old Dominion and University of North Carolina, he became a social worker and made his first visit to San Francisco in 1987.

“I’d seen Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in ‘The Sandpiper’ on TV a few times. It was set in Big Sur and I heard it was near San Francisco,” he said.

Arranging for a trip to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, he remembered, “There were whales going by and I said, ‘As god as my witness, I’ll live in California someday.’ It was nature number one, and the gay community in San Francisco number two, that brought me here.”

Living in the Castro for 22 years, “I was Ellis-Acted out,” he said. He’s since settled in a houseshare with eight people — an old Victorian in Pacific Heights, purchased in the ‘70s by John Newmeyer (brother of gay icon Julie Newmar who played Catwoman in the Batman TV series).

After a lifetime of not knowing her, he finally went on the search for his birth mother.

“My parents had split up and she ended up marrying an American and moving to Texas,” he said. After a long international search, he also located his birth father, who turned out to have lived in Japan, started a family, and ultimately settled in San Francisco.

Where the Tree of Hope will land remains unresolved for Cotter who’s currently confronted at every turn in his office by origami birds, piling up in paper bags.

“It takes months and months of planning, hundreds of volunteers and thousands of hours,” said Cotter.

“First we fold the cranes and record the wishes digitally. The cranes have to be wired, dipped in liquid fire proofing solution, dried and ironed before they go on tree. When they’re placed on the tree, they’re ironed again,” he said.

In total it takes 17,000 cranes to build the tree. In past years wishes have been submitted by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Jane Goodall, Ru Paul and former mayor Ed Lee.

“Back when Mayor Lee was City Administrator, he’d come and visit and encourage us every day we were building the tree. He loved the tree and participated in every tree until his death,” Cotter said.

He is hopeful the tree will find its place this year.

“Through our work internationally, we’re shown time and again how powerful hope is in people’s lives,” said Cotter. “Fostering hope is important.”

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.

Editor’s note: The story has been corrected online to indicate that the author is referring to regions in India and not countries.

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