Since its formation in the wake of the 2004 Sumatra tsunami, American nonprofit organization All Hands has dispatched more than 6,000 volunteers to the scenes of more than a dozen disasters across the globe. While these teams are accustomed to encountering tough conditions — including torrential rain in Indonesia and the threat of cholera following last year’s Haiti earthquake — what they encountered upon their arrival in Iwate Prefecture in April was an entirely different kind of problem.
“Although the tsunami had reduced whole areas of the coast to debris and the few houses still standing were full of mud, when we asked the owners if they needed help, they turned us down,” recalls Neil Lawson, the NPO’s work coordinator. “For almost a week we went door to door trying to assist people, but all of them declined.”
The reactions of the residents surprised the volunteers. A month earlier, the mayors of Ofunato and Rikuzentakata, two of the Iwate towns most severely damaged, had given All Hands’ Executive Director David Campbell and his fact-finding team a warm welcome. But it would prove more difficult to win over the trust of the survivors living in the heart of the destruction.
“Partly, the residents were worried that we would try to charge them for the work we were offering to carry out,” says Lawson, a Missouri native. “And also they seemed concerned about clumsy, loud Americans tearing through their houses.”
Despite this setback, Lawson’s team continued to trek through the devastated communities, attempting to help local residents — many of whom were too old to conduct the strenuous work of clearing mud by themselves.
Lawson remembers the day when his perseverance paid off. “An elderly couple asked us to clean their kitchen shelves. It was only a small job but when they saw how carefully we did it, they asked us to help them to move some heavy furniture. After that, they requested us to clear the mud from beneath their home.”
Having won the trust of this first couple, word quickly spread throughout the community that the volunteers were enthusiastic — and careful — workers who were not afraid of getting their hands dirty. Over the next few weeks, the NPO was tasked with larger projects, including clearing debris from flooded rice fields and shoveling tons of rotting seaweed from a gutted factory.
In early June, due to the fast-approaching rainy season and threat of flooding, the Ofunato Municipal Government took the unprecedented step of embedding these international volunteers into its official maintenance crews to unblock drains.
With its volume of work increasing, All Hands has seen a steady stream of volunteers through its base in downtown Ofunato. On any given day, it has between 40 and 60 volunteers in its charge. Approximately half of them are Japanese; the other half come from as far afield as the United States, Britain and the Netherlands. All Hands requires volunteers to pay their own way to the disaster zone — but, once there, bed and board is provided free of charge.
Combined with a flexible policy that allows volunteers to stay as long as they choose, the NPO attracts an eclectic mix that has included a professional poker player, Ivy League students and retired CEOs. In May, Grammy-nominated pop star Sara Barelleis joined All Hands to clear ditches in Ofunato for four days. “She was a hard worker,” recalls one of those who toiled alongside her.
The boardroom backgrounds of other volunteers have proven useful in securing support from well-known corporations, including 3M, Goldman Sachs and Walmart. According to All Hands’ representative director in Japan, Satoshi Kitahama, Walmart’s offer to supply groceries at wholesale prices is playing a vital role in the NPO’s contribution to feed survivors.
“In Rikuzentakata, there are still 10,000 residents who are unable to secure food for themselves. No supermarkets are open and people’s cars have been washed away. The government only supplies them with a bare minimum — rice balls and bread — so their health is beginning to suffer. We’re trying to ensure that they receive some nutritional balance to their diets,” he said.
Despite — or perhaps because of — the desk-bound past lives of former executives like Kitahama, they are often among the first to volunteer for the most demanding cleanup jobs, such as shoveling the tons of putrid fish still scattered around Ofunato port. Kim Faith, a long-term All Hands member, claims that this zeal no longer surprises her. “The dirtier the job, the more hands go up (to do it),” she says. “There’s this volunteer eagerness. They pride themselves on doing the work that nobody else wants to do.”
While clearing mud is usually sufficient for most volunteers, All Hands sets aside special projects for those who would like an even tougher challenge. In May, one job took a team to the isolated town of Yamada, where the tsunami had destroyed the 500-year-old Arajinja Shrine, an important place of worship for the prefecture’s fishermen. Volunteers camped close to the coast in an area known for its wild bears, while they conducted the 12-day cleanup project.
The meticulous care with which they worked earned All Hands a great deal of respect — and further helped to cement support from the local community.
However, the elderly residents whose homes have been cleaned by the volunteers remain those most grateful for the NPO’s assistance. Zenetsu Nishiyama, 73, lives near the port of Ofunato — and the car tire still balanced atop the roof of his two-story house is testament to the height of the wave that swamped it on March 11. Whereas his neighbors’ homes were uprooted and washed away, Nishiyama’s sturdy house stood firm — but its rooms were left deep in mud that threatened to rot its foundation.
In mid-June, a team of five All Hands volunteers helped to clear away this sludge and remove the moldering walls. Watching the foreign crew work, Nishiyama’s praise was unreserved. “It would have been such a waste to tear down this house. Thanks to them, it can be repaired and I’ll be able to move back. The volunteers work with all their heart and I really appreciate their help.”
Four blocks away, more All Hands volunteers were working on a project to bring some cheer back to this devastated town. After learning from a local resident that the town’s children enjoyed watching fireflies around the neighborhood canals, the volunteers vowed to clear away the choking debris. Working waist-deep in sludge, they scoop aside the mud — in the process uncovering children’s toys and rings of keys that they set aside in the hope that their owners are still alive to reclaim them. After a morning of sustained labor, the water slowly started to move through the canal. First a gurgle, then a torrent — the volunteers exchanged muddy-handed high-fives and relished their minor victory.
According to Ofunato native Moto Suzuki, ultimately it is this enthusiasm that has made All Hands so welcome in Iwate. Suzuki returned to his hometown from Tokyo after the tsunami struck — and now he regularly works alongside the NPO’s volunteers. “They’ve brought fresh air to this town. The residents are really impressed and appreciative of their work. As time goes on, I’m confident that our relationship will become even stronger.”