JQ Magazine: JETAA USA Earthquake Relief Fund Aids Recovery

Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund founder Andy Anderson (center)  with members of the JET Alumni Association of New York at Columbia University, Oct. 30, 2013. (Courtesy of JETAA New York)

Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund founder Andy Anderson (center) with members of the JET Alumni Association of New York at Columbia University, Oct. 30, 2013. (Courtesy of JETAA New York)

By C-M Daeley (Saga-ken, 2008-2011) for JQ magazine. C-M is a poet, rap lyricist, and travel enthusiast currently working as an English teacher in Tokyo. For a look at some of his other writing, poetry and lyrics, check out his blog at http://spikedaeley.wordpress.com.

With today’s 24-hour global news cycle, it is sometimes difficult to keep even the most severe events in public memory. The Great East Japan Earthquake that struck on March 11, 2011 has not received much recent coverage in global news, but the issues faced by those still rebuilding remain monumental. Fortunately, there has been significant international aid from a number of sources, one of which is the JETAA USA Earthquake Relief Fund. This grant has raised almost USD $90,000 and has been used to provide seed funding to assist grassroots programs in areas severely impacted by the earthquake.

Due to the complex nature of fund allocation, this article will focus mainly on projects and programs directly supported through JETAA funds. However, it is significant to note that the Earthquake Relief Fund was only one of several avenues used to bring aid to the region and that, to date, roughly $500,000 has been raised through JET-affiliated groups and organizations worldwide. Jim Gannon (Ehime-Ken, 1992-94), current executive director at the Japan Center for International Exchange in New York, and Jessyca Livingston (Hokkaido, 2003-06), one of the three JETAA USA Country Representatives serving during the immediate aftermath and current JET Program coordinator at the Consulate-General of Japan in Denver, spoke about some of the initiatives the Earthquake Relief Fund has helped support.

“It is very difficult to give a concise yet comprehensive picture of what the JETAA funds have done,” Gannon explained. “The best way to describe it is that they have played a catalytic role in supporting some key projects in the early stage that have been supported by a range of others in more generous fashion once they proved their merits. JETAA cannot take full credit for all of the successes, but it did play an important role in getting things moving.” He also noted, “The real heroes are these incredible people from Tohoku who have championed these projects, the inspirational young people who have relocated to Tohoku to help operate them, and those who have been shuttling back and forth from Tokyo and elsewhere to help formulate and drive these initiatives.”

After a national discussion and several rounds of voting in each of JETAA USA’s 19 chapters, a final decision was made about how the fund should be allocated. “In the end, it was very obvious that chapters found it important to support education-related efforts in those areas most affected,” Livingston said.

Added Gannon, “The JETAA funds were focused in the two towns—Ishinomaki in Miyagi and Rikuzentakata in Iwate—where JETs lost their lives, because we hoped that the symbolic gesture of giving back to these areas might make our small financial contributions even more meaningful for the communities.” The JETs who lost their lives, Taylor Anderson (Miyagi-ken, 2008-11) and Monty Dickson (Iwate-ken, 2009-11), were very active in and beloved by their host communities and were exemplary model JETs and global citizens. Several new programs received funding in these towns, and JETAA USA is currently in discussions with the Rikuzentakata Board of Education to disburse the final portion of the fund.

Alongside the herculean task of rebuilding whole towns and communities, students had the additional burden of preparing for their futures amid widespread devastation. The Japanese higher education system is very competitive, and despite living in temporary housing, dealing with demolished school buildings and other disadvantages, students were still expected to pass their exams if they wished to go on to university.

Enter the highly successful grassroots program Hope for Tomorrow, founded in May 2011. According to Gannon, “The idea was to encourage the students to become internationally-minded, giving them the sense that there is a bigger outside world that they can explore.” To do this, Gannon explained that Hope for Tomorrow helped offer additional tutoring classes in English “immediately prior to the exams, and covered test fees for Rikuzentakata students.”

Gannon cited an earlier exchange with the former head of the Rikuzentaka board of education, who told him that “[They]…want to give the children a dream, give them something to hope for and to strive for.” Uniquely, English study was a means to achieve this goal. An astonishing 80% of all middle school students in the town took the 2012 EIKEN Test in Practical English Proficiency, a record for the town and nearly three times higher than the previous year’s results.

According to the 2011 Earthquake Relief Fund Grant Overview, to further assist the educational needs of the region, Empowerment through Participation and Change (a.k.a. Kodomo no Empowerment) launched “a groundbreaking initiative through which university students provide extracurricular tutoring for middle school students, while also using these sessions to lend a sympathetic ear to students who may feel intimidated discussing their concerns with older adults.” Kodomo no Empowerment’s Manabi no Heya, or “Learning Rooms” where students are given space to study and express their feelings are incredibly important when one takes into account Japanese culture, especially Iwate and Miyagi culture, where enduring painful and uncomfortable situations without complaint is considered a virtue.

Gannon explained that these opportunities to open up are necessary “to give children who have suffered trauma and who are living in trying situations [like] domestic violence, parents coping with PTSD, and unstable futures some sense of hope for the future.” He continued, “[T]he key is not the tutoring, but rather the attention given to providing psychological support for children by giving them a place where they can speak freely and confide in their hopes and worries with the ‘tutors.’”

Another JET-run organization that is continuing to make an impact in the region is volunteerAkita. Their 2013 donor report from the JETAA USA website mentions that grant funds were used for several trips around the region to provide aid in numerous forms, most notably visits to an orphanage in Sendai called Sendai Tenshi En. According to the report, “In the months following the disaster, volunteerAKITA made several visits to the orphanage to check in and also to visit with the kids. During Christmas, volunteerAKITA utilized grant funds and collaborated with Andy Anderson of the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund to provide Christmas presents for all of the orphans at Sendai Tenshi En. The kids were amazed by all of the presents and the event was a huge success.” More recently, in August volunteerAkita partnered with Wakodo and Rikuzentakata in Iwate along with the mayor, city hall and the townspeople to organize FAIR Takata, a carnival and live music event.

As mentioned above, another recipient of the earthquake fund was the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund (TAMF), which was established just ten days after the disaster by Taylor’s family and St. Catherine’s School (Taylor’s high school) in Richmond, VA. According to the TAMF website, “The main purposes of the Fund is to help students, schools and families in the Ishinomaki area recover from the earthquake and tsunami…and to pursue Taylor’s dream of being a bridge between the U.S. and Japan.” To this end, TAMF received donations from an array of donors who have funded a wide range of programs, a few of which include Taylor Anderson Reading Rooms, or Taylor Bunko; the documentary film Live Your Dream: The Taylor Anderson Story; and “Taylor Scholarships” which provide financial assistance to Ishinomaki high school graduates to attend Sendai YMCA College.

“One undocumented phenomenon is that the major humanitarian groups and other agencies involved in the overseas response have often been staffed by JET alumni,” Gannon said. Livingston concurred: “We found that JET alums, who were uniquely positioned to assist JETAA USA in making [the Earthquake Fund] happen, did so. This is a testament to the love and strong bonds that are created between the U.S. and Japan on the JET Program. JETs and JET alums really stepped up to the plate to offer time, energy, support, information and resources to mobilize our community to help in a meaningful way. It was a beautiful display of cross-cultural friendship that came out of a tragic situation.”

This “beautiful display of cross-cultural friendship” provided much-needed relief to many students in these hard-hit areas. After taking the EIKEN test in 2012, many even wrote letters specifically thanking Hope for Tomorrow for giving them the means to achieve goals they previously thought were impossible. In one of these testimonials, a student from Iwate Prefectural Ofunato High School wrote, “I once gave up going into university because I thought it would be burden for my parents. However, I couldn’t give it up and I decided going for it. By studying and learning a lot at university, I will prove [to] them that it was worth supporting us.”

A student from Iwate Prefectural Takata Senior High School offered a story of having to start from scratch just to study: “I was told by an interviewer at an entrance examination that ‘You’ve hung on really well so far under such surprisingly difficult conditions.’ And I realized then what we had been through and how many people have [been] involved in supporting us. I had to start to study from buying a pencil and an eraser because my house and school were totally destroyed.”

Another student described an uplifting experience: “I passed the entrance examinations and could step forward for my dream of becoming a midwife so as to contribute in the local medical care. I would like to save and take care of every precious life.”

Even with compelling stories like these, there remains much to be done. “The less visible issues include how to spark a sustainable economic recovery for towns that were already struggling and what can be done to repair community ties that have been torn asunder,” Gannon said. “Plus, another growing issue is the sense on the ground that Tohoku is starting to become forgotten.”

Currently, the JETAA USA Earthquake Relief Fund is no longer taking donations. Unfortunately, funding for these programs has continued to decrease in the years since the disaster, however, donations and outside funding from local and international sources are among the best ways to assist these areas as they continue to rebuild. Below are some links where interested parties can donate or find out more about the organizations mentioned in this article.

HOPE FOR TOMORROW: Donors to Hope for Tomorrow can make direct donations through the link below. Also, JCIE, which has tax deductibility for U.S. donors, can facilitate larger donations from Americans (meaning several thousand dollars). Those interested should contact Jim Gannon for more info.  http://hope-tomorrow.jp/donation/index-e.html

KODOMO NO EMPOWERMENT: Kodomo no Empowerment can receive donations via their website (only in Japanese). As above, JCIE might be able to help facilitate larger donations for Americans. http://www.epatch.jp/donation/
Other organizations still accepting donations in the U.S.:

JCIE: http://www.jcie.org/311recovery/fundoverview.html

Japan Society of New York: http://www.japansociety.org/earthquake

Global Giving: http://www.globalgiving.org/projects/japan-earthquake-tsunami-relief/

In Japan:

JEN: http://www.jen-npo.org/en/

AAR Japan: http://www.aarjapan.gr.jp/english/