MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan – In the week before the school’s spring break, students at Misawa labored through a project to raise money for the Japanese communities hardest hit by last month’s deadly earthquake and the tsunamis it spawned.
Children worked at home, gave up recess and spent hours in after-school care programs meticulously folding Japanese origami paper cranes — a traditional symbol of hope and good fortune in Japan.
Project organizer Susan Blake, a counselor at Sollars Elementary School, said the goal was 1,000 cranes from Misawa. They would be mailed, along with thousands other from various schools across the United States, to the Bezos Family Foundation, which had pledged a $2 donation per crane, up to $200,000.
Blake said that just before the deadline to mail last Friday, a Japanese woman showed up at the school with 4,000 more cranes, “strung in a beautiful cascade,” that local Japanese day-care students in Misawa City made. That brought the total from Misawa to 19,920 cranes – or $39,840 that would go to the coastal communities that suffered so much loss.
“The amount of positive energy with the children was amazing, just the upbeat ending of school we needed before the vacation week,” Blake said in an e-mail message.
The Misawa students weren’t alone in the push to help off-base friends and neighbors. Students across the Pacific collected coins, ran races for pledges, designed and sold T-shirts and wrote messages of support to be broadcast on Japanese television. Some even held a diaper drive.
With staff and students on Spring Break – and some collection efforts still ongoing – there is no official number as to the amount donated via Department of Defense Dependents Schools in the Pacific.
But many schools reported successful drives.
Elementary school students at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, south of Hiroshima, managed to raise $1,545 to be donated to the Red Cross International Disaster Aid efforts.
Principal Shelia Cary and Netra Harwell, a reading support specialist and student council sponsor, said the children there decided to host a weeklong “Lend a Hand to Japan” benefit.
They came up with clever names, such as “Our Pennies Have a Purpose,” and “Nickel Day, Lend a Hand to Japan” to collect money throughout one week.
“The kids, the families, the staff, everyone donated,” Harwell said of the school, with only 500 pre-kindergarten to sixth-graders.
Both Harwell and Cary stressed the kids feel a direct connection to Japan and really wanted to assist.
“This is their second home,” Harwell said.
On Okinawa, Bob Hope Primary School kindergarten teacher Bill Golden helped spearhead a diaper drive, something crucially important to residents living in shelters who had minimal resupplies.
In one week, his students, along with kids at Amelia Earhart Intermediate School, managed to collect 11,000 diapers. They were loaded on a Japan Self-Defense Force plane bound for northeastern Japan.
As the father of a 3-year-old – and with students who have many younger siblings – a diaper drive seemed like the best idea, Golden said.
Kids that young obviously can’t grasp the enormity of the tragedy, but they can directly relate to diapers, he explained.
“They loved it,” he said of the young students. “They thought it was just hysterical to bring in diapers.”
But even the youngest children at the school could understand that “a lot of people were hurt,” he said.
“We concentrated on ‘This is what we’re going to do for the smallest people who were displaced and harmed,’” Golden explained.
He said the school also completed a “Buck a Kid” collection project, which netted $877 from the 651 kids in attendance.
Staff members at Camp Zama’s Arnn Elementary school know exactly who will receive the money they’ve been able to help raise via T-shirt sales.
School registrar Yoko Tanabe has been staying in contact with officials in Kesennuma, a coastal city that was decimated by the tsunami, according to an e-mail from Sue Morin, the school’s principal. Many residents who lost homes are in five shelters there and are “in dire need of rice and other foods, daily mainstays, and toiletries to provide basic needs,” according to Morin.
For a small school — they’ve had an average of about 225 students since many left with families on voluntary departures — they managed to raise about $8,100 in five days. Half of that money will go to the Red Cross, the other half will go directly to Kesennuma.
Morin said it’s “overwhelming, inspiring, and gratifying know that so much good remains in this world of ours.”
Back at Misawa, 11th-grade National Honor Society student Katherine Shoemaker said some kids have struggled with the current events, especially since many of their friends left with families on voluntary departures.
“It’s a difficult time,” Shoemaker said of those who’ve remained behind.
She thinks that’s why the students at Edgren High School have been the best customers in the T-shirt sale the society chose to raise money for Sendai. And she’s proud to report that sales are also booming with people back in the States sending checks and money orders.
“Facebook has been a huge help,” she said.
Shoemaker designed the shirts, one with cherry blossoms and the Japanese kanji for Sendai, the other with the Japanese cat that symbolizes happiness in the culture.
The shirts are meant to serve as “a memorial kind of remembrance for those who didn’t survive,” she said.
To date, Edgren has raised more than $3,000 in sales.
“I’m really happy,” she said. “I didn’t expect this large of a turnout.”