volunteerAKITA has established contacts in Kesennuma, Miyagi – Miyako, Iwate – Rikuzentakata, Iwate – PLEASE contact us if you are interested in volunteering in these areas, and we can give you all the information you need. Please refer to the “Contacts” page and contact the specified Project Co-ordinator for the area you are interested in heading to. Tohoku needs us right now! We hope you can find time to volunteer!
– volunteerAKITA crew
June 12, 2011 – Sunday was a long day, and we used the hours to deliver ridiculously many bananas to twenty-some shelters in Kesennuma. To begin with, Yui and I left at six in the morning. We met up with Jon and Jez, and headed to Yokote. Kathie was waiting for us there, and we picked her up and hopped on the expressway heading east.
There is a supermarket in Kitakami called Super Osen. They have cheap bananas. Very cheap. It seems they have cheap everything, because we got there before opening hours, and maybe 50 people were lined up outside the front door. Anyway, the doors opened, and we got our bananas. 35 boxes. Everyone was skeptical as to whether we’d be able to fit all the bananas in our cars, but we did. Then we hopped on the expressway again, and headed SE to Kesennuma. When we got there, we met and planned out the adventure. Kathie went to help Paul with his deliveries, and Jess and Rachel, two amazing Kesennuma ALTs, helped us with ours. In the morning, we hit up Kujo Elementary School, Kesennuma High School, K-Wave, Matsuiwa ElementarySchool, Matsuiwa Junior High School, and the Bosai Center. K-Wave still has hundreds of residents, but several of the other shelters have decreased in numbers as people move into temporary housing or find other places to live.
In the shelters with more space, people can set up tents or cardboard walls, or use several rooms, all of which help give them a modicum of privacy — far better than everyone living together on the gym floor. The food situation also seems to be improving. At several shelters, people told me they were getting canned fruit once or twice a week — and on rare occasions, fresh fruit. A month ago, in contrast, nobody said they were getting any fruit at all. Even at the shelters where people were getting fruit from time to time, they were very happy to get a few boxes of bananas. And as we were delivering, we ran into many of Jess’s and Rachel’s students, which was a lot of fun.
After lunch at 7-11, we headed to Hashikami Elementary School, Hashikami Junior High School, Hashikami Community Center, Niitsuki Junior High School, and Shishiori Junior High School. At this point, we were almost out of bananas, and it was almost dinner time in any case. Dinner time makes deliveries to shelters somewhat chaotic, and is best avoided. Yui and I started back, and the rest of the group headed off to a final stop at Omose Junior High School. 3 hours later, we were home, safe and very tired. I soon fell asleep and almost slept through my alarm clock the next morning.
This is the first time I’ve visited so many shelters in a day, and it’s quite interesting to see the differences. The Bosai Center is a firestation, and part of it is now a shelter. But the other part is a functional fire station, and there are lots of fire trucks parked outside. Some of them have sharks painted on the back. K-Wave is a huge community center. We didn’t get a chance to go inside, but we walked around the outside, and there was a skate park with skateboarders working on jumps and tricks. Hashikami Community Center is a 2-storybuilding, and the shelter is on the 2nd floor. There are perhaps four large rooms, and because it’s on the 2nd floor, all of the rooms have decent views. Shishiori Junior High School, our last stop of the day,was a fittingly stereotypical Japanese school. It’s located at the top of a big hill connected to everything by a curvy narrow road which must surely be impossible to bicycle with any degree of safety. It being a Sunday, we were lucky enough not to encounter any cyclists with whom to test this theory. It should be noted that evacuation sites in Japan are typically used not only for immediate evacuation, but also for longer-term use. As such, they need to have a safe location (a high location), a large space for people to sleep in (a gym, say), and a decent road for supply trucks. I am told this is one reason that schools are on the top of hills — they already fit two of the three criteria, and being atop a hill gives them an edge on safety. On the other hand, it may well be that when new schools are being built, people already have houses in the good low-lying areas, so the next best locations are hill tops. It doesn’t really matter what the reasons are, because whatever they are, we’re very happy that many schools along the coast were on high ground. It’s also good fitness training for the kids who have to walk up and down every day.
– Douglas P. Perkins
June 12, 2011 – Today was our most impressive day of fruit deliveries yet! ~5,950 bananas to 22 shelters in the Kesennuma area! Kathie and I took my car loaded with bananas to an area west of central Kesennuma called Karakuwa. It’s a small peninsula that has about 7 shelters scattered throughout the area. The largest shelter housed about 90 people while the smallest housed around 16. It’s really important for us that we try our best to focus on these areas too because in some cases theses shelters located out of the way tend to not see as much relief aid. The situation in Karakuwa is definitely changing as well. The temporary housing units are already starting to fill up, and some of the shelters we delivered to told us they will be moving out in a few weeks time. In the coming weeks, we are going to have to start looking into the temporary housing situation. By all means this isn’t the solution to all the problems. In some cases, moving into the temporary housing adds more stress because it then means they are totally independent in terms of providing their own meals etc etc. Some people don’t have enough money to support themselves right now, so these are the people we need to help provide for.
Delivering out to Karakuwa was an amazing experience. It was nice to chat with some of these smaller shelters, and the vibe was totally different. The feeling felt more relaxed and things definitely moved at a slower pace. A couple of the shelters even offered us food and drink (super kind people) and one wanted us to join them for lunch! After we finished up in the afternoon, we headed back towards Kesennuma central, and finished delivering the rest of the fruit before meeting up with the crew. Today was such an EPIC day. A big thanks to the team we had down here this weekend and a SPECIAL thanks to 3 awesome Kesennuma ALTs (Jess, Rach, and Eddie) for helping us out! YOU GUYS ROCK!!!
June 4, 2011 – Alicia, Ohara, and myself decided to drive down late last night so we could catch some sleep before a BIG day of fruit deliveries and volunteering! Niitsuki parking lot has become VERY familiar with the volunteerAKITA crew! (It’s a great location right outside of central Kesennuma for car camping) The rest of the Akita crew came in early this morning and we got busy with delivering FRUIT! Today we expanded out to 10 shelters. Our biggest daily delivery yet! 40 boxes of bananas (~3,360 bananas) in one day! We split up into 2 teams. Ohara, Alicia, Mike, and I were in the 2 bigger vehicles, so we took care of the shelters that needed more fruit. Liyen, Anne’s Mom, Masato, and Anne took 2 smaller vehicles to some of the shelters that were housing fewer people, but a BIG thanks to them because their group of shelters were definitely more spread out through town! So a BIG OTSUKARE to them. In total, we reached out to 10 shelters in the Kesennuma area, from smaller shelters with 20 people to the largest shelter in the area housing 450 people. After the fruit deliveries were done, we all rushed over to the VC to volunteer for the day (check out the field report under the BIG CLEAN!).
One of the highlights of the day: I FINALLY met my bro Michael Maher-King from Smile Kids Japan! He happened to be in Kesennuma meeting with some orphanages, so the timing worked out perfectly and we got to meet up for a little. It was nice finally meeting the guy in person. He’s been such a mentor and supporter of volunteerAKITA and The Fruit Tree Project, and has been doing absolutely amazing things for the orphans in Japan, especially in Tohoku! So glad we got to catch up, and we are looking forward to getting involved in all that he has planned! Definitely check them out in our “Links” section, or under “Projects” Smiles & Dreams!
Another BIG thanks to the amazing Akita crew we have down here right now! Such an all-star crew, and wow its amazing to have so many people in our group that can speak English/Japanese fluently! It’s been such a blessing. Looking forward to what tomorrow brings 😉
June 5, 2011 – Another Big day for us! We delivered 40 more boxes to the same 10 shelters, in hopes the extra bananas will last them into the week. Due to our work schedules, we are unable to deliver fruit during the week, so it is important for us to supply these shelters with more than a days worth of fruit. Fortunately, all of the fruit we pick up in Kesennuma is extremly fresh and many of the boxes of bananas are still slightly green, so in that sense it’s good to know they will have a longer shelf life. The situation with the shelters in Kesennuma is constantly changing, especially now that people are moving into temporary housing units built by the government. For the most part, all of the shelters are shrinking in size, so hopefully that allows us to reach out to more shelters, including the smaller ones in more remote areas. The fruit deliveries went a lot quicker this morning since we established all the locations yesterday. The group then met up at the VC for another full day of volunteering! Minami, Wil, and Rye came down, so we had a solid group of 11 representing AKITA! So much love for the crew we had this weekend! There was no way we could have accomplished all that we did without everyone’s help! It was truly an EPIC weekend, and we ended up delivering ~6,720 bananas in 2 days! Otsukare!!!
ALSO, a very SPECIAL shout-out to 2 lovely Akita ladies who put in 4 solid days of volunteering this week! Liyen Tang and Kuniko Haga (Anne’s awesome Mom!) You ladies are AMAZING!!!
June 2, 2011 – It was raining on the highway to Kesennuma. Located at the northeast end of the Miyagi Prefecture, large sections of the city were destroyed by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Driving past swathes of uncleared debris in the downpour, my partner and I prayed for better weather at our destination. We had decided to make the long trip from Akita to help in the reconstruction process. By the time we reached the Volunteer Centre, the skies had cleared, and our group of eight was driven to a house. The house was huge and beautifully built with wooden interiors. Its beauty had an eeriness when cast in the backdrop of devastation around it – it was one of the few houses left standing in the community. Still, it was not left unscathed by the disaster. The tsunami had swept through the house, leaving the floors and doors caked in mud and refuse. Our task for the day was to take down all the doors and windows, and clean away the mud caked on its hinges and grooves. It was tough, unglamorous work, but we all worked hard. By the end of the day, when all the screens, doors and windows were put back, the house was sparkling clean and smudge free. Looking around me, I could see smiles of satisfaction on all our faces. Although it would take years to restore Kesennuma to its former glory, a small victory was won today.
June 3, 2011 – We arose at day break, still sore from the previous day’s work, but eager to begin a new day. This time, my group of four was tasked to wash all the dishes and traditional lacquered bowls and trays of this family. The whole first floor of this house had been submerged in water for a week and all of their furnishings and floor boards had been damaged. We got down to work using the taps outside their house. Thankfully, clean water had come back this week. It was a beautiful day and the job went smoothly.
May 28, 2011– A group of five ALTs left rainy Yokote at 5:30am on Saturday morning. Unfortunately our hopes for better weather on the other side of the mountains did not quite materialise, but a few rain drops were not going to make us turn back! We joined a small army of waterproof-clad volunteers at the Volunteer Centre in Kesennuma, where Mel was quickly designated our team leader. This time we did not join up with any other volunteers but instead we were given a job which came through for five people.
At first, the area we were dispatched to seemed remarkably undamaged, with shops already open for business on one side of the street. It was certainly obvious that a lot of clean-up work had already been done here. We were working in a former shop, which seemed (so we thought at the time) to be a place where salvaged belongings were being brought to be cleaned. Our task for the day was to clean photographs which had been damaged by the tsunami. We were given a large cardboard box filled with packs of newspaper-wrapped pictures. Each pack had to be unwrapped and sorted into dry photos and wet photos. The dry ones were cleaned with a dry cloth and piled into clean, plastic boxes, while the wet ones had to be peeled apart and spread between layers of newspaper in another cardboard box. Sometimes a pack had suffered minimal damage and could be dealt with quickly, but other times the entire pack was stuck together and each photograph had to be painstakingly peeled from the rest. Sometimes just resulted in a discoloured border around the picture, but other times the entire image was lost in a swirl of ink.
Although the work was certainly less physically demanding than other clean-up work we had done, we all agreed that it was a truly unforgettably day, and over the course of our visit we realised how wrong our initial impressions had been. This was not a centre for salvaged goods, but simply one man’s shop and his remaining belongings. We were not just cleaning recovered photographs, but sorting through one family’s cherished memories and salvaging what we could. At first, the owner seemed understandably overwhelmed by the five foreigners who had turned up on his doorstep, but slowly we began talking with him about his experiences. From our conversations and the photographs we discovered an incredible man: Suzuki-san is a 51 year-old music shop owner with two children, who has surfed for 33 years, played taiko for 25 years, and travelled extensively. His family are fine, but his house was totally destroyed on March 11th and he now lives in a shelter at his daughter’s junior high school. His shop is still standing, and he proudly showed us three huge vintage speakers which were too heavy to be carried away, but there was a lot of damage inside. The wave had come three times, he told us, leaving a thick layer of mud inside the shop and a pile of debris outside which was nearly as tall as the building itself. Both had already been cleared, but inside the shop the waterline on the wall was so high that I could barely reach it standing on my toes and there were dents on the ceiling from the corners of floating objects. The windows had been smashed and the clock on the wall had stopped at 3:55pm. It was incredible that so much of his extensive photograph collection had survived with little water damage.
We were all overwhelmed by Suzuki-san’s strength, gratitude, and kindness, and we parted reluctantly with promises to return to Kesennuma soon to help again. He also insisted that we come back for the annual Minato Matsuri (Port Festival), which he hopes will be able to resume next summer.
May 21, 2011 – A small group of determined ALTs left Akita in the rainy early morning with hopes of better weather in Kesennuma. Lucky for us it turned out to be a beautiful day on the other side of the mountains, and it was a perfect day for volunteering! We joined up with three other foreigners and two Japanese volunteers to make “Team International.” Our project for the day was cleaning out a lady’s rented apartment. The surrounding area was completely clean, and when we got out of the car our first question was, “Did the tsunami even come here?” The pachinko parlor across the street was up and running business as usual and the neighboring shops were all clean. However, we walked in the apartment and quickly realized that yes, we were in the disaster zone.
Everything in the apartment was covered in a layer of mud, and the tatami mats that had been pulled up and thrown around by the tsunami had molded in the two months since the disaster. The lady asked us to throw everything out, so we got to work moving out the furniture and bagging up everything else. The worst part of the day came when we were shoveling up the mud and discovered the large pile of fish the tsunami had deposited in a corner. We worked through it though, and were able to have the apartment entirely cleaned out by early afternoon. By the time we finished, the trash pile outside was enormous. The big furniture had to be relocated to a nearby park to make room for all the other things we brought out, and a special garbage truck came by to pick it up after we left. Since the apartment was a rental the lady asked us not to throw the tatami mats out, but instead to put them back in. They were caked in mud and molded, but she was afraid the landlord would be upset if they were thrown out. We did as she asked, but the mats are definitely NOT safe to ever use again.
When we said goodbye to our friends at the Volunteer Center they asked if anyone from “Team Akita” would be coming the next day. They are looking forward to our visits, and I am definitely looking forward to returning!
May 15, 2011 – We were rolling deep. 15 people from Akita showed up to help today. That was our biggest group of volunteers in Kesennuma yet. It was great to see everyone down there ready to work. At the VC we meet up with four more Japanese people and went to our work site in a group of 19. This job was right on the coast, but was probably not the hardest one we have had. We were tasked with cleaning out a plot of land. There was lots of garbage rocks and a little debris to haul out. We also had to keep our eyes open for money and photo albums, both of which were found (small brick of solid gold). We all worked hard and kept our collective noses to the grind stone and before long it was the end of the day and that plot of land was all cleared up.
I want to thank all the people that came down to help this weekend. Michiko, Paul, Minami, Will, Kathie, Margaret, Rye, Adrian, Melissa, Nikki, Shaun, Ben, Jim, Jon, Ashley, and Rachel, you guys did a great job.