1st-time volunteers hit ground running

SENDAI - Faced with organizing 1,400 people from across the nation who had come to do their part to help the victims of the March 11 disaster, the Sendai government decided to open a volunteer center in the city's Miyagino Ward.

Under the center's management, aid is now being efficiently delivered to the 4,700 people living in the ward's 35 evacuation centers, and help is getting to many others staying in severely damaged homes.

The volunteer center--set up jointly by the city government and its social welfare council on March 15--has been likened to more of a matchmaker than a control tower, as it pairs volunteers with disaster victims.

At 9 a.m. on Monday, people wanting to volunteer were already lined up in the center's home base at the Miyagino Gymnasium. The applicants--including a young man in a down jacket, an older man with a backpack and a foreign resident--wrote down their names and addresses on registration forms, and then sat down to wait. The 100 seats available were filled in only 10 minutes.

The center accepts all kinds of requests for help--repairs to damaged houses, help with cooking, even providing elderly people who live alone with the comfort of some human contact. It also decides what kind of work each volunteer is most suited for, and dispatches them to where they are needed most.

One volunteer at the center that day was Tetsuto Sugai, an 18-year-old resident of Aoba Ward in the city.

At 11 a.m., the third-year student at Tohoku Gakuin High School and six other volunteers got in a van and drove 15 minutes to an area in the ward near Sendai Port. On the drive, the van passed countless vehicles that had been picked up and crushed by the tsunami. They eventually arrived at the home of 61-year-old Yuko Nishijima, who lives alone and had asked the center for some helpers.

Sugai and his fellow volunteers moved a mud-stained drawer and a ruined washing machine out of the house. Nishijima told the group that the day was her 61st birthday. "I couldn't move those heavy things by myself and I felt helpless," she said. "Your help is a perfect birthday gift."

Sugai had taken entrance exams to get into university this winter, but he was nervous he had failed and would have to take the tests again next year. After disaster struck his city, he decided to put his energy into helping others, rather than sitting around being depressed.

Having never done volunteer work before, he had no idea about how to talk to disaster survivors, many of whom had lost looks on their faces. "I didn't have the courage to talk to them in the beginning," Sugai said.

But watching a 23-year-old graduate student in his volunteer group talk naturally with elderly people while continuing to work hard, Sugai was amazed to see faces relax and smiles bloom.

When he was moving broken furniture at the home of a 75-year-old woman who lived alone, he found a necklace on the floor. "Is this yours, ma'am?" Sugai asked, handing it over after cleaning it off with his work glove. The woman smiled and said, "Yes. That's very precious to me."

Sugai realized just a few simple words could cheer people up.

At 10:30 a.m. in Aoba Ward that day, Shintaro Oishi, a 26-year-old part-time worker who had come all the way from Fukuoka, was working with two other volunteers to move a large chest of drawers from an apartment where clothes and eating utensils were scattered across the floor. "OK, let's lift it up. Ready? Go," Oishi told the other two.

Oishi was in Kobe when the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 struck. At the time he was only a fourth-grade primary school student. The condominium where his family lived was extensively damaged, forcing them to stay in shelters for a while.

On March 11, while watching footage of the disaster on TV, he vividly recalled the 1995 quake. He decided immediately he would go and help out.

He knew he had to be ready to live independently in the disaster areas, so he packed a two-week supply of emergency rations and water in a backpack. After a long trip of many trains and buses, he finally arrived at the volunteer center late on March 18. That night, he slept in a sleeping bag in a nearby parking lot, but moved into the second floor of the gym the next night, where he has been since.

"Without volunteers, Kobe wouldn't have recovered so soon," Oishi said. "This time, I'll be a part of that support network."

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More than elbow grease

After the volunteers had been dispatched and the gym held just a few scattered people, the team of six volunteer coordinators got down to business.

One coordinator, first-time volunteer Sadamasa Hashimoto, 63, of Miyagino Ward, has intimate knowledge of the local geography. He worked on a chart detailing when vehicles transporting volunteers would return.

When another staff member received a call from a person who needed help, Hashimoto noticed there was nobody around. Calling out loudly, "Come over and listen up," two young staff members ran up to help.

"The busier we are, the more we need to share information," Hashimoto said. "If more people are around to listen to phone calls, they'll be able to tell the volunteers what to do quickly and correctly."

Until he reached mandatory retirement age, Hashimoto worked as a car salesman and also handled customer complaints. Well aware of the need for speed and accuracy in responding to people's needs, he is always thinking about how to increase efficiency.

Hashimoto said: "I thought volunteering would mostly be physical labor. In my job, I was good at working on problems and finding solutions by observing how people worked. That experience is helping me now."

The volunteers return to the center at 2 p.m. and the center closes at 3 p.m. since it is dangerous to work after dark. As night fell, Hashimoto began writing the daily report.

He wrote down what the volunteers had told him about their work that day: "Some elderly people at temporary shelters still don't know about the volunteers," and, "Many people are very uncomfortable because they still haven't been able to bathe." Writing down problems helps him come up with how to solve them, he said.

After 6 p.m., the lights are turned off and the center's work is done for the day.

The center had dispatched about 220 volunteers that day, but Hashimoto thought more would be needed to cope with the growing pile of work.

-The Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network