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Volunteer group of U.S. military families fosters lasting friendships in Tohoku

YOKOSUKA, Kanagawa — A volunteer group comprised primarily of family members of U.S. military personnel stationed at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Kanagawa Prefecture continues to provide support for those affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, nearly a decade after the disaster.


For many members of the group Helping Hands for Tohoku, what started as a helping hand has blossomed into the full-blown embrace of lifelong friendship.


Even after returning to the United States, some members still make the occasional long trip back to the Tohoku region to meet with residents of the disaster-stricken areas.


Masako Sullivan, 41, a representative of the group who currently lives in California, has pledged to extend long-term support for those whose lives were upended by the disaster. “For those who have lost so much, it’s still only been 10 years,” she said.


On Dec. 18 last year, armfuls of bagged sweets arrived at Hoikuen Milk, a nursery facility in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. The parcels were Christmas presents that Sullivan and other members purchased with donations collected in Japan and the United States, to the delight of the 85 children who attend the school.


“I’m so glad that they haven’t forgotten about us,” said Kayomi Aihara, 53, director of the nursery. “We’re looking forward to being reunited with everyone again soon.”


The group was launched in April 2011, a month after the massive earthquake, by Sullivan and others on the Yokosuka base. Sullivan had herself experienced the Great Hanshin Earthquake in January 1995 when she was living in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture.


“I was utterly overwhelmed at the time. Now, I felt it was my turn to pay it forward and assist those hit by the [2011] disaster.”


She rallied support on Facebook and coordinated the delivery of emergency supplies to people at evacuation centers in Yokohama and Kawasaki. But she soon realized that there were even more individuals in dire need of assistance.


In March 2012, the group visited a temporary housing facility in Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture. An elderly woman met during this visit was initially confused when one of the group’s members tried to give her a hug in the American fashion. Yet no sooner had the woman hesitantly acquiesced, than she burst into tears at this gesture of solidarity. Sullivan said the moment illustrates the power of the human touch, and how communication is possible even without words.


The group’s members have continued to deliver supplies to those in need on a regular basis. Since March 2014, they’ve also begun making periodic outreach visits to local nurseries, including Milk.


Reflecting on her conversations with survivors in some of the hardest-hit areas, Sonja McClelland, a 53-year-old Texas resident, said, “The friendship and camaraderie made during this difficult time has made us all family.”


At its height, the group’s roster exceeded 200 members. About 25 have continued to collect donations at charity and other events in the United States, while another 20 or so members remain an active presence in Japan. Sullivan said she is encouraged by the thank-you letters that fill the group’s mailbox as a testament to the special bond the group shares with the residents of Tohoku.


Every summer, Sullivan usually travels throughout Tohoku in a rental car packed with her three children and relief supplies. Although the novel coronavirus pandemic put her annual pilgrimage on hold last year, she has been busy collecting children’s clothes and picture books in the United States, eagerly anticipating her next visit.


In the meantime, the group continues to give back to the Tohoku region while maintaining the stance of doing what they can when they can.

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