'Dear Palo Alto' gives teens outlet for self-expression

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,

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 of dancers, 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.

Mickey 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

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Like this comment
Posted by Former Gunn Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 28, 2010 at 5:06 pm

This is great, really Great, there is no right word to describe how good this event will be for our kids. It should have happened a long time ago. The district tried to hide it, but only made it worse. There are a lot of kids who are still feeling pain about losing classmates, and let's not forget the students who lost their siblings. They were asked to keep the pain inside. Thanks, young lady, for giving back to the community and especially to our kids.

Like this comment
Posted by Jessica
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 29, 2010 at 12:05 am

This is a wonderful idea! I wish you the best of luck in the performance and I hope the message reaches the hearts of many. Stay strong Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmmm
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 29, 2010 at 11:43 am

What a wonderful way to honor your brother's life. It's not always easy to turn tragic events around for the positive, yet you are doing it. As a parent of a daughter who has been bullied on FB, I think just knowing you are not alone, speak volumes.

Like this comment
Posted by Paly grad
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 29, 2010 at 11:46 am

I'm glad she can finally talk about Ben. I hope this helps other people and prevents more deaths. RIP.

Like this comment
Posted by Pleased Parent
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Oct 29, 2010 at 11:47 am

I'm glad this is going on. My kids were affected by the suicides, but they do not want to talk about it. I know they should, but they are keeping it inside. They were told that if they talk about it more kids will do it. So they are not opening up. It seems like is small number of students who die, only 5, but the damage to the rest has been tremendous. This is what the district should focus on. Every time a student dies to sucide they do not just die. They stay in the minds of their classmates for ever. Some are capable or have the means to take care of it, while others ignore it. Very Sad. Hope things change. I am glad Julia tells about her eating disorders, hopefully other students in the same situation will recognize it and get help.

Like this comment
Posted by Former Paly Student
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 29, 2010 at 11:51 am

Keep up the good work Julia you are an inspiration to us all.

Like this comment
Posted by Jade Chamness
a resident of another community
on Nov 1, 2010 at 2:21 pm

My name is Jade Chamness and I am the Founder of Break Through the Static (, the non-profit organization co-sponsoring Dear Palo Alto. Julia is a remarkable young woman. We are thrilled to be a part of this incredible event.

On Saturday November 13th we're taking a group of teenagers affected by suicide on a day trip to Alamere Falls in Marin County. We're meeting in San Francisco @ Ortega Public Library on 41st and Ortega. There are still spots available. To sign up: go to and click "JOIN".

[Break Through the Static supports teenagers who've lost a loved one to suicide.]

Twitter: @BreakTTStatic

Like this comment
Posted by Arts supporter
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 5, 2010 at 3:22 pm

What a wonderful way to help our students find their voice. Thank you for reminding the community about the power of the Arts.

Like this comment
Posted by An observant
a resident of Palo Verde School
on Nov 7, 2010 at 4:25 pm

I attended the event, and it was great to see the students expressing out their feelings, without being afraid to be kicked out of school. Great performers. I wish people from schools (specially psychologists)would had been there. They could have gotten to know how much help our kids need. Too bad they did not want to be part of this important teen event. May be next time, they will lose the stigma.

Like this comment
Posted by student
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 8, 2010 at 9:24 pm

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Jade Chamness
a resident of another community
on Nov 10, 2010 at 11:07 am

The event was wonderful. Thank you to all who came out.

As a reminder: Break Through the Static is going hiking this Saturday (11.13) and we have a few spots open. Palo Alto and Peninsula teens affected by suicide are welcome to attend!

We're meeting in SF @ 10a at 41st + Ortega at the Ortega Public Library. We'll hike all day in Marin to Alamere Falls, grab some ice cream, and head home. Pick up is at 6:30p. It's going to be tons of fun.

Sign up: - click "JOIN". | 415.501.0710

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