IWU Alumni, Faculty and Students Team Up to Help Japan
During one of volunteerAKITA's weekend Big Clean trips, a homeowner in northern Japan
surveys the destruction in his town.
June 2, 2011
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – The 8.9-magnitude earthquake that rocked Japan on March 11, combined
with the subsequent tsunami and nuclear reactor crisis it triggered, left in its wake
thousands dead and nearly half a million homeless, according to CBSnews.com.
In the shadow of such devastating tragedy, the Illinois Wesleyan University community
stepped up to the plate to provide hope and aid from the other side of the world.
From on-site volunteer work to on-campus fundraising events, IWU alumni, faculty and
students have spent the last few months doing all they can to bring relief to those
affected by this year’s disasters.
“I am so close to everything that has happened, while lucky enough to be out of harm’s
way,” said IWU alumna Margaret Kocher, ’09, who is currently teaching English in northern
Japan through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme. “I got involved because
I felt that I needed to help somehow.”
Attributing her leadership skills to her experience at IWU, Kocher said there was
“no question” about whether she would contribute to relief efforts in the aftermath
of the disasters. “The events in March, as horrible as they were, had many positive
outcomes,” said Kocher. “I think the relations between the people of Japan and many
foreigners working here have strengthened. Everyone is helping rebuild Japan, and
it is beautiful.”
A former Hispanic studies and music double-major, Kocher is now an active member of
the grassroots organization volunteerAKITA, which formed in March to help rebuild
Japan after the earthquake and tsunami. According to Kocher, volunteerAKITA recently
spearheaded a movement to address one problem that seems to have slipped under the
radar in the midst of many others.
“An English teacher in my town organized a food and supplies drive to bring items
to the Miyagi Prefecture region, and while he was there he spoke with a few volunteers
at the local shelter who told him most people were in need of fruit. The miso soup
and rice just weren’t cutting it,” said Kocher. “A few of us in town got together
and started brainstorming, and now volunteerAKITA’s Fruit Tree Project does fruit
runs to shelters.”
Kocher said in its first 10 days of delivery, the Fruit Tree Project raised nearly
$10,000 and supplied over 15,000 items of fruit – including oranges, sunfruit, grapefruit,
apples and bananas – to nine shelters throughout Japan. “Because the town of Akita
is much closer to the devastation than larger cities with established support networks,
it is easier and less expensive for volunteerAKITA to give help to those who need
it most,” she said, adding that thanks to support from larger non-governmental organizations
in Japan, the group was recently able to create a website accepting outside donations.
A Fruit Tree Project volunteer uses magic tricks to entertain children at a shelter
in northern Japan.
Another volunteerAKITA project, the Big Clean, has taken volunteers to the Iwate and
Miyagi Prefecture regions to clean up some of the damage. But while Kocher said participants
in both projects benefit from getting to know each other and forging connections for
the future, the work isn’t always enjoyable.
“The most frustrating part is seeing all the destruction and wondering if it will
ever end. You get to an area, finish and feel accomplished—and then you realize there
are millions upon millions of areas just like this all over the eastern region,” said
Kocher. “But we can’t give up. When we finish cleaning and meet the extremely thankful
people we’ve helped, I think we all realize this is bigger than many of us would have
expected. It’s a good job to do, and it’s a job that needs to be done.”
Kocher is one of many Illinois Wesleyan alumni who now call Japan home, but according
to International Office Director Stacey Shimizu, only one current IWU student spent
an extended time period abroad in Japan this year. Dane Brinkmeier, ’12, who studied
for the academic year at Tokyo’s Sophia University, returned to the United States
for break just days before the earthquake hit.
“When I was home in March, I wasn’t sure if I would be coming back to Japan,” said
Brinkmeier, an international studies major with a concentration in Asian studies.
“My heart was going out to those who suffered in the tsunami.”
Besides minor inconveniences like planned blackouts and power outages designed to
conserve energy, Brinkmeier’s international experience was not drastically affected
by the events in March. “Tokyo is a good 250 miles from where the disaster hit,” said
Brinkmeier, who has been back in Japan since early April and plans to return to the
United States in August. “I feel fortunate that I could return to Japan.”
More than 80 IWU students and faculty members attended Paper Cranes for Japan, held
on April 4
in the Hansen Student Center.
While not everyone in the IWU community was able to provide hands-on assistance in
Japan this semester, those in Bloomington-Normal have also worked to contribute to
relief efforts. On March 27 during their annual International Carnival (I-Carnival)
at the Hansen Student Center, IWU’s International Society student organization (I-Society)
raised money for The American Red Cross Japan Fund. Although the main attractions
were song and dance performances by IWU’s international students, I-Society also raffled
off a painting created on the spot by art major Katya Kobrina, ’12.
Over the course of the evening, Kobrina painted Canadian band Crystal Castles’ lead
singer Alice Glass in accordance with the carnival’s theme of international music.
Guests were able to purchase raffle tickets for $1 each, and International Student
Advisor Reenie Bradley reported that between the raffle and outside donations, I-Society
raised over $200 to send to the Japan Fund.
In another on-campus fundraising effort, the Phi Beta Delta international studies
honor society teamed up with Asian Studies students and the Japanese Studies Program
on April 4 in the Hansen Student Center to host Paper Cranes for Japan. According
to participating art major Becky Ebben, ’14, folding paper cranes holds special traditional
significance in the country, where legend states that anyone who folds a thousand
will be granted a wish from a crane, a “holy bird” believed to live for a thousand
The event gave participants a crash course in origami and asked for a monetary donation
– $1 for students and $5 for faculty – for each crane they folded over the course
of the evening, with proceeds benefiting the Japan Disaster Fund. For every crane
folded, the Bezos Family Foundation also donated $2 to Architecture for Humanity.
Over the course of the evening, participants folded over 1,500 paper cranes.
Participants signed their names and wrote “well wishes” on each crane they personally
folded. The goal of the evening was to fold a thousand cranes, but by 9 p.m., participants
had created more than 1,500. According to Assistant Professor of Religion Tao Jin,
who teaches in Asian Studies, nearly $300 was raised even before the Bezos Family
Foundation’s additional contributions.
During the two-hour event, Emeritus Associate Professor of Physics Ray Wilson spoke
about the dangers of nuclear radiation, and Professor of Anthropology Charles Springwood
facilitated a Skype conversation with IWU alumnus David Leach, ’89, who was teaching
physics in the Fukushima Prefecture region when the earthquake struck. Leach and
other Japanese locals shared eyewitness accounts of the destruction in Japan.
“It seemed to be an embodiment of the clichd phrase ‘it’s a small world,’” said Ebben.
“To talk with someone who attended IWU and is now experiencing first-hand the effects
of a natural disaster on the other side of the world was not only an eye-opening experience,
but also a great way to get involved in assisting those in Japan who need our help.”
Although the situation in Japan has faded from the media spotlight, the country is
still struggling to rebuild. “Donating, I think, is the most important relief effort
right now,” said Kocher. “Illinois Wesleyan has a great way of promoting service
opportunities both on and off campus.”
With such a commitment to making a difference both locally and internationally, the
IWU community has reflected an impressive capacity – shared by many in Japan – to
always seek out the silver lining. “There are two new students at my elementary school,
one from Miyagi and one from Fukushima,” said Kocher. “At first I was a little sad
to see them there – just the idea that everything they owned was lost or unattainable
due to radiation – but then I realized they must be happy to be here, safe in a loving
community. Every downside definitely has a positive.”
Contact: Jackie Connelly ’12, (309) 556-3181