By now we all know the story: on 3/11 a 9.0 earthquake in Tohoku rocked Japan from the northeast to the Kanto plain. It was the largest recorded earthquake in Japan’s history, the fourth largest recorded ever. The quake was so massive in scale it actually moved portions of northeastern Japan 8 feet closer to North America. The ensuing tsunami left 15,451 dead, with 7,692 missing (presumed dead), and over 40,000 living in shelters. The estimated tally in material damage is expected to exceed $300 billion, an estimate that would make it the most costly natural disaster in history. (Data source)
Anyone who has read my ramblings on this blog knows I have close ties to Japan, starting with my Japanese wife, which by logical extension means we have family there, including my son who lives and works in Tokyo. In this sense, the disaster truly hit close to home. It’s personal.
When the disaster struck on 3/11, my wife and I felt helpless. We were heartsick and wanted to do whatever we could to contribute but our options seemed limited. We donated to the Japan Red Cross through various avenues; volunteered to open our home to refugees from the disaster area (still waiting for a taker); wrote about unfolding stories in Japan on my blog; and Kurumi even started a “Gambare Japan” fundraiser with her Japanese language students at Hawaii Academy of Arts & Science (HAAS).
We were glad to do what we could, but something was missing. We wanted to directly connect with folks who needed help, look into their eyes, embrace them, hopefully make them smile.
That’s why we were lucky to get a call from our good friends at Japan America Society of Hawaii (JASH), asking if we knew of a Big Island school with lots of aloha that would be willing to host 20 Japanese middle school students from the disaster area in Japan.
We said we knew just the school: of course Hawaii Academy of Arts & Science!
The Birth of Rainbow for Japan Kids
Let’s start with a very sincere plug for JASH: it is a wonderful non-profit organization doing lots of good deeds these days. Established in 1976 its mission is “promoting understanding and friendships between the peoples of Japan and the United States through the special and unique perspective of Hawaii.” To achieve these ends JASH provides programs that help expand knowledge, increase meaningful human contact, and facilitate discussion of important issues related to Japan-US relations.
We’ve been members of JASH since we moved to Hawaii five years ago and have seen firsthand the value this organization brings to Hawaii. My company continues to collaborate with JASH on projects when the need arises.
After the 3/11 disaster my friends at JASH really stepped up to the plate. As of this writing, they’ve raised $3,665,166 for Aloha for Japan and other donations, and another $106,757 for their new initiative created last May, called “Rainbow for Japan Kids”.
Here’s an excerpt from the Rainbow for Japan Kids mission statement:
“Hawaii is a place where people from different cultures and backgrounds meet and coexist surrounded by natural beauty. This combination of cultural diversity and natural beauty holds recuperative powers. By providing this opportunity here in Hawaii, we hope the affected children will experience the spirit of Aloha of these islands, and return to Japan with their eyes opened wide by the experience with new hope to create a better future for themselves and their community.“
What I love about the Rainbow program is its commitment to helping the most vulnerable victims of Japan’s disaster. So when JASH told us about the program, it not only tugged at our heartstrings, it presented the perfect opportunity to contribute our cross-cultural skills to the cause.
The program concept is to bring to Hawaii, groups of Japanese kids from the affected disaster areas to “engage in educational and cultural activities designed to provide physical and psychological relief from their tragic experiences”.
The first Rainbow group would arrive on July 27 and stay for ten days. They would spend the latter part of their trip on the Big Island, and requested to visit HAAS on August 3rd.
HAAS Reaches Out to Japan
So we approached Steve Hirakami (Principal of HAAS) and Dan Biegler (campus director) to ask if HAAS would be willing to host the first group of Rainbow for Japan Kids. They were nodding their heads before I got the request out of my mouth.
The first group would be 15 girls and 5 boys, all Japanese middle-school children from Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima. One of the children in this group was actually swept away in the tsunami and later rescued; another was trapped on a roof for 2 days without food, not knowing if her parents had survived. (Thankfully they did.) Most lost friends or relatives; all the kids from Iwate and Miyagi lost their homes and are currently living in evacuation centers or with relatives or friends.
Classes began at HAAS on August 1st, so the teachers and students had only 2 days to prepare for the event. Our initial worry was lack of time to find enough student performers to entertain our guests for an hour. Happy to report that we had so many students volunteer, we ended up using some of the snack time period to squeeze everybody in!
The teachers came up with a great plan for the event. Here’s how it unfolded:
The students gathered at the school entrance, then cheered when the guests arrived in their tour bus. When each guest stepped off the bus they got a lei, a gift pack, and a hug. (All leis were handmade by HAAS students and teachers just for this occasion, and gift packs also put together by the students.)
The performances took place in the HAAS Pavilion. We reserved the two rows of seats in front of the stage for our guests.
Principal Steve Hirakami kicked off the festivities by welcoming our guests. He talked about the depth and history of the Japan-Hawaii relationship, his own lineage to Japan, and the importance of nurturing students to become global people.
After Steve’s welcome we cut the students loose to begin the entertainment, starting with two Japanese-language students who sang three traditional Japanese songs. Our guests joined in and it turned into a Japanese sing-along!
Then the Tahitian dancers took the stage, followed by ukulele players, singers, guitar players, hula and hip-hop dancers. The Tahitian dancers came back to close out the show with a finale, at which time they invited our guests up on stage to join them.
During the performances, we kept our focus on the audience. Our guests were engaged and smiling.
Afterwards, we encouraged our guests to wander the campus, even had them feed the tilapia in the HAAS aquaponics pond. When the fish were full we headed over to Jeanine Baker’s class for an interactive game of “Fox and Rabbit”. Well, that turned out to be so much fun our guests decided to hang with us an extra 15 minutes even though their schedule was very tight.
Hat’s off to everyone at HAAS for a wonderful event that filled the campus with smiles. If you ask Principal Steve Hirakami he’ll tell you that the philosophy at HAAS is to mold students into being “good people”. The idea is that if HAAS students do good things for the community then the “smarts” will naturally follow. On August 3rd the students turned that philosophy into reality.
And the “goodness” of everyone present inspired us. To all the students, teachers and staff at HAAS who put together this event, you can feel good that for just a couple hours, you brightened the lives of some kids who really needed to smile, and in the process built yourself a beautiful rainbow bridge to Japan.
Rainbow for Japan Kids will be an ongoing program. We look forward to facilitating an ongoing relationship between HAAS students and Japan’s “Rainbow Kids”. Anyone looking for a worthy cause where 100% of your donation will go to helping the victims, please consider supporting the Rainbow for Japan Kids program.
Special thanks to Ed Hawkins and Kelsey Soma of JASH, Ryoichi Okubo (President of JAL Hawaii), Kaori Kano (Bikki), Hiro Ito and Kyoko Tomita (Kids Hurt Too), “Mimi” Izumi Nakano (our great interpreter!), and everyone else who made this wonderful program come to fruition.
Also a big mahalo to the donors and partner’s sponsoring the Rainbow kids. Check ‘em out and give them your business if the spirit moves you.
Last but not least, thanks to my son Grady and his friends Babatunji, Trey and Junior–all dance instructors from Center Stage in Hilo–who volunteered their time and energy to perform for and interact with our guests.
Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011