A Brief Report on Volunteer Activities in Japan, August 2011

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The Tohoku Disaster Volunteer Center is located at the Sendai Betsuin. Volunteer activities begin with a brief orientation at 5:00p.m. which includes a tour of the facilities. Classrooms for the now unused pre-school serve as the sleeping quarters. Because the Volunteer Center is a converted pre-school, all the furniture and accommodations are too small. There is an innocence that can be found at the Center which helps to ease some of the tension that the first time volunteer is sure to bring. Some of the worry, however, is also dissipated by the condition of the city of Sendai.

Sendai is a modern city. Just driving through you would not know that anything untoward happened. People are just going through their daily lives. But all you have to do is drive a couple of miles away and you discover much of the damage that was broadcast world wide during the actual disaster. Driving through the tsunami-destroyed town gives you an eerie feeling. It is a ghost town as far as the eye can see. It doesn’t seem real and because of this you find yourself wanting to convince yourself that this is just a movie set; but, it is not. Relief work is ongoing and, as part of the results of that work, piles of rubble have been created around the town almost rivaling the mountains that nature probably took centuries to make. If you focus on the mountain landscape and ignore the destruction and rubble around you, it is hard to believe that in such a peaceful and tranquil place such a terrible thing can happen. But, the devastation is clear. On the other hand, so is the determination of the volunteers and the locals who keep coming back working little by little to start over again. When you focus on the devastation you can’t help but be filled with a deep sadness. When you see the determination you are filled with hope, but there is still much work to be done.

Below is a synopsis of the daily volunteer schedule found at the Volunteer Center.

The Volunteer Center day begins with a 7:00 a.m. morning service (optional). After the service, teams are made based on the previous night’s sign-ups. Team captains are introduced to their respective teams and the teams are shuttled to their respective volunteer sites from about 9:00 a.m. Volunteer activities go until about 3:00 p.m. Depending upon the traffic, you return to the Center by about 4:30 p.m. After cleaning up a bit, the nightly 6:00 p.m. meeting is held. The meeting begins with Gassho and is followed by volunteers who have just arrived introducing themselves to the larger group. Following introductions, team leaders report about the volunteer activities their team participated in. Volunteers are also encouraged to report on their experiences. Following these reports, the staff reminds everyone about the safety precautions everyone should be mindful of at the volunteer sites because of the continued possibility of aftershocks and even more tsunami. Following these reports volunteers who are finishing their activities at the Center are given time to say their farewells as well as express their impressions of their experience. One such volunteer, who was probably about 18 years old, expressed how he was the one that gained from the experience. The meeting ends with everyone being asked to sign up for the next day’s volunteer activities which may include things such as debris clean up, disbursement of basic supplies, and recovered photo clean up and distribution.

Rev. John Iwohara

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