'Dear Palo Alto' arts event offers teens a way to express themselves
Organizer Julia Tachibana opens up about her brother, seven years after his suicide
It took Julia Tachibana seven long years to be able to talk publicly of her brother, Ben, and his decision to take his own life on the Caltrain tracks near Palo Alto High School one fateful November evening — becoming the second Palo Alto student to do so, years before last year's deaths of five Gunn High School students.
When Ben died Julia was 16, Ben 15, a junior and a sophomore respectively at Paly.
Today, Julia at 23 is a student at University of California, Davis. She is outgoing and exhibits a confidence she says derives in large part from the outpouring of community support she received following Ben's death on Nov. 17, 2003.
She is returning to Palo Alto next week not just to discuss her brother's life and death but to offer a creative hope to young persons — using a performing-arts stage such as one that once inspired her with such hope.
She has organized a special event, entitled "Dear Palo Alto," which will combine dance, drama, music and art for one performance, Saturday, Nov. 6, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Cubberley Community Center Theater.
For weeks, Tachibana has been inviting high-school students to submit art, poetry or prose comments and to try out for dance, music and drama performances.
In invitational flyers, Tachibana calls the event "A Powerful Teen-Led Response to the Suicides that Affect Our Community," and links people to a website, www.DearPaloAlto.com.
But the event, while responding to suicide, is really about life and creating a sense of well-being within young persons, she said.
"'Dear Palo Alto' offers teens a way to express, through artistic means, their pain as well as their hope for a better tomorrow," she said.
"The goals of this event are for Palo Alto youth to come together to lift the stigma associated with reaching out for help, and to form a supportive, caring community," Tachibana said in a statement.
The performance is co-sponsored by the City of Palo Alto Community Services Division; "Break Through the Static," a nonprofit organization supporting teens who have lost a loved one to suicide; and Omega Printing.
The event is free and open to the public.
The arts performance is inspired not only by Tachibana's experience with her brother's death but also her own struggle with an eating disorder.
She recalled hiding her problem as a teenager and feeling all alone until she saw a Paly play that addressed eating disorders.
"When I saw it up on the stage it was something I could really identify with. I felt less alone, and it kind of gave me hope because I thought to myself, 'Oh, maybe there are some other students struggling with this as well.'"
Ben's death hit Julia terribly hard, along with her older brother, Thomas, then a recent graduate of Paly, and her separated, immigrant parents.
"I think I was able to somehow pull myself through it because I really got a lot of support from the community of Palo Alto. I think I'll always have a place in my heart for Palo Alto because strangers would write me notes and send me letters and check up and call and see if I was OK.
"That's partly why I'm doing this — because I was unable to speak about it when it happened, because I figure it just took that long to kind of process everything. But now that it's been seven years I look back on what everyone did for me, and if I can just give back a little bit of what they were able to do for me... "
Her support included counseling, which provided perspective and hope, key ingredients in developing a positive, mentally healthy outlook, she said.
A dancer herself growing up, she hopes the event will showcase what youth can do.
"Hopefully this event will empower not only those in the audience but those doing the performances. Just being able to release whatever you're feeling through a ... medium such as art is really healing and effective," she said.
One headliner for the Nov. 6 event is a group from Dance Connections, a Palo Alto-based dance studio for children and teens. The performers Nov. 6 will be primarily Paly and Gunn students.
"They've been really excited about performing," Tachibana said. "They will be doing something powerful that will reflect the sadness of the whole situation but always provide some sort of hope, or at least give meaning.
Nickey Cho, a social-justice rapper who recently won the People's Choice award at the Asian-American SF Kollaborations, will also perform.
One dream of Tachibana's is to reduce the discomfort some people feel about talking about someone who has died with the person's family members.
"I understand. A lot of times it's hard for me, too. There's always a moment when I'm talking to someone, a split second when I think to myself, 'Do I tell this person about my brother or not?' And it's always a really hard call because a lot of times I don't know how they'll react. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I know that it'll be more awkward for them than it is for me, so I just don't talk about it.
"But I think that by now, with five suicides in one year — that's huge, and no one can really deny something like that. So I think that we have a responsibility as a community to address it and to, you know, kind of reflect on where we are and what we can do."
Julia Tachibana can be e-mailed at email@example.com. Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.