On any given day, there are about 120 patients at Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute.
Some stay only a few days; others remain for months. Most probably just want to get better and get out.
In February, some members of the staff at Moccasin Bend started a game with the patients called Winged Messengers.
The idea was to create sets of wings with poster paper and paint. Each set would then be captioned with an inspirational message -- such as "Dream" or "Help One Another" or "You Are Important" -- and then sent out into the world.
It seemed like a good way to let the patients mentally move beyond their environment without actually leaving.
The patients worked on the art project in shifts of about a dozen in the institute's arts and crafts room.
Later, these pieces of "free art" were taken to public places around Chattanooga and placed in conspicuous spots: the Market Street Bridge, on a chair on Main Street, in a booth at Chattanooga Market. Other sets of wings went to Signal Mountain, Lookout Mountain and North Chattanooga.
The hope was that random people would find the wings inspirational and take them along on their travels.
Think Flat Stanley meets Hallmark.
On each set of wings was a little scroll of white paper explaining that Winged Messengers is a student arts project. The scrolls also contained an email address so people could send back notes and photographs. However, nowhere on the note did it mention that the wings were from a state mental-health facility.
So far, 42 sets of wings have taken flight and been reported in locations around the world.
One set of wings was picked up on Main Street here and eventually made its way to Australia.
Another set was taken on a cross-country trip to San Diego, where it found its way into a school classroom. The children there wrote letters to German pen pals encouraging them to start a Winged Messengers project in Europe, and they did.
"Who'd have thought that a simple act of kindness and a few words of encouragement would migrate as far as they have," said Catherine Norrell, a Moccasin Bend counselor associate who helped start the project.
"Every year we try to do a community project," she said. "They [the patients] feel like they have taken a whole lot from the community, and they want to give back.
Some patients have spent time on the street and know what a great gift it can be to get one simple word of encouragement, Norrell said.
Others find the art project therapeutic.
"They find a part of themselves that they never knew they had," Norrell said.
Sometimes a mighty wind starts with a mere whisper of hope.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedy
Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...