JET Alum, Project Tohoku Bring Aid to Iwate

All Hands volunteers and 3M workers take a break from tearing down drywall to enjoy a delicious bento lunch. All Hands executive director and founder David Campbell, center, T.R., second row, far right. (Eric Zdenek)

By T.R. Pearson (Shiga-ken, 2004-06) forJQ magazine. T.R. currently works in the Admission Office at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, New York. This was his third deployment with All Hands after volunteering in Indonesia in 2006 and Bangladesh in 2008. If you’d like more information on All Hands, he can be reached at theodoreroyce[at]gmail.com.

I’m sure most JETs remember the influx of e-mails after every typhoon or earthquake in Japan. It didn’t matter if you lived hundreds of miles away on a different island, family members and friends wanted to know you were safe. With the exception of a couple rumbles and some violent windstorms, my time as an ALT in Nagahama, Shiga-ken was relatively peaceful. While earthquakes in Japan are always a concern, the scale of devastation that occurred on March 11, 2011 was unimaginable and unpredictable. Watching coverage from my home in New York, I was now the worried person sending e-mails to friends and researching ways I could help. I found my answer on March 14 when I received a message from the international disaster relief organization All Hands entitled “Japan Tsunami Assessment.”

Three days after the quake, executive director David Campbell and international operations director Marc Young, were on the ground surveying the damage and meeting with local governments to discuss possible response projects. As Marc said in his e-mail, “the best way to really understand the situation is to be there on the ground, and make important decisions from that perspective.” After encountering some refusal for assistance in certain areas, the mayors of Ofunato and Rikuzentakata in Iwate-ken graciously opened their arms and their cities to All Hands to coordinate relief efforts, recruit volunteers, and distribute fresh food through a partnership with Second Harvest Japan. A month after All Hands launched Project Tohoku, they received over 4,000 applications from eager volunteers. Initially, the organization requested people with Japanese language skills and cultural knowledge to expedite the work that needed to be done. This made JET Alums and current expats living in Japan perfect candidates to get involved.

Much like the JET Program, All Hands attracts people from all over the world at different stages in their lives. To date, All Hands has brought in over 539 volunteers from 28 countries. When I was there in June, I worked alongside college students on summer break, backpackers who rearranged their travel schedules, mid-career professionals who quit unfulfilling jobs, nurses with extensive international experience, and of course, JET alumni. Certain aspects of the JET Program mirrored this experience as we navigated an unfamiliar landscape, discussed Japanese culture, talked about our hometowns, sang our hearts out in karaoke booths, shopped at the grocery store, and lived in a community as if it were our own.

This cultural exchange and increased international awareness is a major pillar of the JET Program. However, for a small fishing town like Ofunato unaccustomed to a massive international presence, the response at first was a bit unsettling. Many residents did not know who we were or why we were sweeping their roads and filling bags with debris. As All Hands became more visible and the results of our hard work more evident, the community began to appreciate and support our efforts. One day, while working on a highway project, which required shoveling mud and sludge out of trenches, a group of obaasans arrived with an unlimited amount of tea, Kit Kats, and Pocari Sweat for our crew. On the Fourth of July, All Hands hosted a party complete with hamburgers, hot dogs and cold beer for over 200 community members. The event was featured in the “Making a Difference” segment on the NBC Nightly News and all of us certainly felt like we were.

Despite Japan not having an established non-profit sector, I was amazed at the number of Japanese volunteers from all over the country. The Japanese branch of 3M brought a 40-member team including their president, and enough masks, gloves, boots, and other products to stock All Hands’ supply closet. Habitat for Humanity Japan arrived with volunteers as far away as Kyushu to assist with the rehabilitation of over 200 houses designated for re-inhabitation. Even local groups from Ofunato, including the police department and fire department, joined All Hands to clean public spaces and gather rubble. All Hands also has a policy of employing people affected by the disaster to work as bus drivers, cooks, and housekeepers to stimulate the local economy and to build solidarity between the community and the volunteers.

At the end of each work day, everyone reconvened at base for dinner and evening debriefing meetings. Since there were numerous projects happening simultaneously around town, this was a chance for team leaders to relay the days’ accomplishments, like ripping up floorboards in a house, gutting the interior of a sushi restaurant, or reuniting lost photos with their respective owners. It was also a time when departing volunteers could say a few words about their experience. A Japanese woman, originally from Ofunato but living in Tokyo, revealed how overwhelmed she was by the outpouring of support she had witnessed but never expected. Another woman who worked with mentally and physically disabled children told us about a Japanese boy who had suffered from depression prior to the earthquake. He told her watching the people rebuild his hometown “renewed the spirit” in his heart. These speeches reaffirmed everyone’s commitment to the work we were doing and reminded us of the positive impact we were making in the lives of others.

On my last day in Ofunato, there was a small earthquake followed by a tsunami warning. Immediately, we headed to higher ground and waited for instructions. I couldn’t help but think about the actions people took on March 11 after hearing that siren that either saved their life or took it away. On my bus ride to Sendai, I passed Rikuzentaka and gazed at a massive landscape of destruction. In this area where the waves were over 100 feet tall, nothing could have been done. The only thing to do is to respond with well-organized relief strategies and a visible commitment to provide sufficient aid. With the effective leadership from the All Hands staff and the limitless dedication of its volunteers, I knew each day would bring Ofunato and Rikuzentaka a little further down the long and difficult road to recovery.

All Hands received permission from each government to extend Project Tohoku through September 2011, and it’s likely they will be there beyond that. If you are a JET alum who wants to give your time and labor to people of Japan again, All Hands would love to have your application. No interviews this time, just an acceptance e-mail and a plane ticket will get you there. The base even has wireless, so you’ll be able to let you family and friends know you’re safe.