The word “volunteer” took on new meaning for me today as we listened to four different stories today in the Tohoku disaster area. Five* of us left Tokyo this morning and traveled to Sendai. I’m just blown away. Let me briefly share four stories.
Suji-san is in his late twenties or early thirties. He came to Sendai from Tokyo in early April, just weeks after the disaster. He just had to help. And he has learned his way forward. Today he is the founder and leader of Sanaburi Foundation. Sanaburi is the name of an ancient festival of giving thanks to the ancestors after the seeds have been planted. The Foundation’s work is to support the planting of a variety of “seeds:” the many projects needed to recreate this region. He and others have established Sanaburi as an intermediary matching the needs of those who have money they want to invest in Tohoku and the needs of those who have work they want to undertake here. Suji’s had some experience in community foundations and saw the need her. Already Save the Children and a major UK donor have become partners.
Keita-san was finishing off a graduate degree in education in Yokohama when the disasters hit. He game to Sendai in March. He started off driving trucks of supplies needed in the region. He kept working and working and looking for where he might be of the most service. Just this week, two cooperatives in different parts of Japan have provided the initial funding for the “Foundation of Cooperative Community Creation.” Like Suji, his purpose is to collect funds needed for work in Tohoku and to distribute them to those who can use them well in a way that satisfies donor’s desires for accountability.
Oyashiki-san has put his undergraduate degree at University of Tokyo on hold. He came to the region in May. His work has been with the “bedroom community” of Takajo. Here’s what’s been happening. For many months, people whose homes were destroyed by the Tsunami lived in shelters. There was no privacy; everyone was connected, whether they wanted it or not. All of the families of Takajo are now out of the shelter. 340 families — about 500 people — are now living in temporary housing. They’re the elderly, the hardest to employ, the least resourceful, the most dependent. Now they’re isolated in separate housing units; disconnected, unemployed. They are a community within a community and, to some extent, the surrounding community turns their backs on these new residents. The result has been both an alarming number of suicides as well as people getting sick and sicker because they have no relationships. Oyashiki works with them. Doing things like visiting all of the shopkeepers in the neighborhood and making a directory of the shops and what they offer those in temporary housing. He also helps to set up ways to make sure everyone is visited on a regular basis. He speaks of his work as trying to make a bridge from the old community to the new community.
Before going on to the fourth story, let me pause a moment here. These are three young men (20s and 30s) who had no idea they would be in Sendai eight months ago. They came because they felt a deep calling. In part because they are young, they are able to walk through the normal isolating boundaries common in the region. They are also able to enter into relationship with the other young people from the region. They’ve stepped forward into work that needed to be done. They’ve done so with commitment, passion and willingness to do whatever it takes to serve.
Okay, the fourth story. This one from Tome, a community about 2 hours from Sendai which was ravaged by the tsunami. We arrived at 7:30 in the evening just in time for the nightly meeting of the RQ Volunteer Center there. RQ is a nonprofit organization which responds to disasters. There are about 5 or 6 RQ Volunteer Centers in Tohoku. We visited one. Thirty people were seated on Tatami mats in the multipurpose room of a former school. There’s an agenda on the whiteboard in the front of the room. The basic agenda is reports from the 10 or so different teams on what they did today and what they plan for tomorrow. The reports are brief and to the point. The meeting closes by going through the community tasks needed for tomorrow — chairing the morning meeting, chairing the evening meeting, cleaning the baths, cleaning the men’s and women’s toilets and a few other basics. After the close of the meeting, we spend 3 more hours talking with people about their work. This is a completely self-organizing system. The fellow who ran the meeting tonight arrived two days ago. Of the 30 or s people now in the center, many come for 5-10 days. Some have been volunteering in the center since March or April of May. People come, people go. They sleep in other rooms in the former school and cook for each other in the school’s old kitchen. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds — ranging from one fellow who had spent the last four years biking around the world to one woman who quit her job as an elementary school teacher.
Tomorrow it will be 8 months since the disaster hit. People are still showing up to volunteer on a regular basis. They form teams going out and cleaning tsunami debris, supporting the fishermen of the area in rebuilding their businesses, creating crafts businesses with women, visiting people living in temporary housing, playing with children, tending to the basic tasks of the RQ volunteer center. I can’t imagine volunteers showing up like this after eight months anyplace else in the world! As we continue our discussions, one of the things that comes up is they’re concerned about creating dependency: are the people in the area getting lazy because we’re doing all these things? The volunteers come from all over Japan. Drawn by a desire to help.
I think this is just amazing. All four stories. People stepping forward because help is needed how. They’re finding ways to see what’s needed now and stepping forward to get it done.
Incredible energy and dedication.
*Five includes: Susan Virnig, my spouse, who has done extensive work in Japan these last two years; Yuya Nishimura, my dialog partner here and the founder of a new nonproft, Miratsuku (Creating the Future) Kumakura-san, another Miratsuku Board Member and Teacher at Keio Unversity, and Ooki-san, a public relations executive who has created a Youth Community Dialog project in Rikazentakada after participating in the August Youth Leadership Dialog.