My niece, Anne Smith, is an Assistant Language Teacher (“ALT”) who helps teach English to children in Japan for the Japan Exchange and Teaching (“JET”) programme. She is based in Odate in the Akita prefecture. This in the northwest of Honshu, Japan’s main island. Akita is bordered on the east by Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, which were devastated by the tsunami this past March. Her family back in the U.S. was relieved when we finally heard from Anne after a long power outage. She was safe. Unfortunately, two other teachers in the programme lost their lives in the tsunami.
Anne wrote about her recent experience volunteering to help victims of the tsunami. Her touching account appeared in the local newspaper. But first, a quick glossary:
“bogu” is kendo armor.
“tare” is the protective waist belt.
“zekken” is where your name is embroidered.
(Anne has now practiced kendo for two years).
After the earthquake and tsunami in March, every ALT I know wanted to help Japan, the country that welcomes us so warmly and gives us so much. A good friend of mine and ALT in Honjo, Paul Yoo, took this a step further by starting an organization called volunteerAKITA. This organization now has two ongoing projects, The Fruit Tree Project, which distributes fruit to people living in shelters, and The Big Clean, which mobilizes volunteers to work in the affected areas. So far 23,614 pieces of fruit have been distributed through The Fruit Tree Project and more than 753 hours of volunteer work have been contributed through The Big Clean.
As for me, between March and the end of May, I was at home every night and weekend studying for the GMAT. I missed out on many things, but most importantly I missed out on helping with the relief efforts in Iwate and Miyagi. I promised myself that as soon as the test was done that I would go and volunteer.
June 4th, I was finally able to go on my first trip. I traveled to Kesennuma with 8 others (including my mom!) and participated in both of volunteerAKITA’s projects. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, we used the money collected by the Fruit Tree Project to buy and deliver 6720 fruits to 10 shelters in Kesennuma. After the deliveries were finished, it was onto The Big Clean! Through the Kesennuma Volunteer Center, we were sent out to shovel mud from a house on Saturday and sort mud covered photos on Sunday. Although Saturday was physically hard, Sunday was the toughest day. We cleaned and sorted through thousands of photos, many of them undoubtedly precious family memories, preparing and organizing them so that they may be reclaimed. We also cleaned a few personal belongings that had been found. I held back tears as I neatly folded the dirtied bogu of an elementary school student. The student must have practiced very hard because the strings of the tare were well worn. I read the name Takahashi as I adjusted the zekken.
The weekend exhausted me, but I felt more hopeful after it was completed. I was inspired by volunteerAKITA and how much can be accomplished by a few motivated people. I was impressed by the Volunteer Center in Kesennuma; it was so well organized and the people were so kind. But most of all, I was moved by the amazing strength people have. We met a man at a shelter who asked us where we were from and what we were doing. After we explained ourselves, he told us that he was originally from Akita. In the tsunami, he lost everything, including his sushi restaurant. As we drove away, he called to us in English, “Thank you! Good luck!!” I replied, “Thank you and good luck to you, too!” then sat back in amazement that someone who had lost so much was cheering us on.
When you go to a place like Kesennuma and see the destruction, it is overwhelming and unbelievable. But when you look up from the rubble and see the amazing people working tirelessly to mend the wounds and rebuild a community, you know that one by one we can make a difference.
For more information on what ALTs are doing to help: www.volunteerAKITA.org
In a separate note, Anne told me:
I’ve watched Paul put volunteerAKITA together from the ground up. It all started when he took a car load of supplies (food, diapers, water) into the shelters weeks after the tsunami. He asked the people who live there what they needed most and it was clear that they were getting no fruit and needed it. From there he started collecting money, found a vendor, and has been delivering fruit to the shelters since. It’s been amazing watching him build something so big from a simple idea . . .
And the whole time, he has made everyone involved feel like it was us who made this happen. On July 3, NBC will be following him for a day. NHK (Japan’s largest media station) followed him a few weeks ago, and numerous newspapers have written about what he’s started.
I encourage you to check out www.volunteerAKITA.org, and to make a donation if you want to support this good work.
Related Post: After the Tsunami: Update, NBC News Coverage