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NGOs looking out for little lives in the wake of 3/11

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In the second of a two-part series highlighting ongoing efforts in Tohoku, Lifelines introduces two groups that are helping children in the areas affected by the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident. While some semblance of normalcy has returned to their lives, these youngest and most vulnerable of the victims of the triple disaster require ongoing support.

Save the Children is well known as an international nongovernmental organization that specializes in helping kids. Founded in the U.K. in 1919, the NGO has spread to encompass 30 independent national members, which have developed child-centered activities in around 120 different countries.

Save the Children Japan (SCJ) was established in 1986 and works on both international and domestic projects.

“After the disaster we implemented the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Emergency Response and Recovery Program,” says PR representative Yuka Matsunaga.

Among SCJ’s activities has been the construction of a number of after-school care centers for the elementary school-age children of working parents (commonly known as “gakudō club” or simply gakudō in Japanese) in Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi prefectures.

“We implemented needs assessment in the affected areas and found that gakudō was one of the highest priorities from the perspective of the children’s safety,” notes Matsunaga.

Upon learning that after-school centers did not receive the same priority in terms of support from public agencies as schools, day care centers and kindergartens, SCJ realized there was a gap to fill.

“By supporting gakudō, we also could provide crucial support to parents and communities who needed to go back to work to rebuild their lives again, and provide a sense of normalcy after the disaster.”

While existing after-school care centers did their best to cope, many simply did not have the funds to reopen. Moreover, with many families being forced to relocate after losing their homes or due to radiation concerns, the population of school-age children mushroomed in some of the areas where temporary housing had been set up.

Working with the welfare ministry, local governments and existing gakudō providers, SCJ has so far provided building materials and furnishings for the completion of seven after-school care centers. Four more are currently under construction. Once completed, the running of the centers becomes the responsibility of the local city offices.

SCJ welcomed the input of staff members during the planning phase, says Matsunaga.

“We encouraged gakudō staff to join the construction meetings in order to reflect their ideas and voices in the design of the buildings.”

SCJ has continued to support the after-school centers as much as possible, partnering with local businesses to provide activities during the summer and winter vacations, such as arts and crafts, sports and field trips.

“Some children in gakudō have had very limited chances to play outside due to school grounds being occupied by temporary housing (in Iwate) and concerns about radiation,” says Matsunaga.

Although residents of Tohoku are moving forward with their lives, much has changed for these children. Some have lost a parent, while others have seen their families split up temporarily while one parent looks farther afield for work. Many families are finding it hard to eke out a living, and mothers who may have previously stayed home are seeking employment to help out with finances.

In the midst of all these changes, having a place where children can play safely after school and be cared for by attentive staff members in tune with their needs is a real boon for families.

Long-term issues: British psychologist and psychotherapist Andrew Grimes founded Apricot in the wake of 3/11 to support mental health care professionals working with communities in Tohoku.
Long-term issues: British psychologist and psychotherapist Andrew Grimes founded Apricot in the wake of 3/11 to support mental health care professionals working with communities in Tohoku. | APRICOT

One of the greatest ongoing concerns for parents of children affected by the Tohoku disaster is how it will affect their young ones’ health in the years to come. While much media attention has been focused on the potential dangers of radiation exposure for children in the vicinity of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the issue of mental health care gets far less play.

As a psychologist and psychotherapist who is board-certified within the Japanese mental health system, Andrew Grimes foresaw a need for precisely this kind of care. In 2012 the British-born Grimes, who has called Japan home for close to 30 years, set up the Apricot (Allied Psychotherapy Relief Initiative for the Children of Tohoku) nonprofit. In October last year the charity’s application for NPO status was officially approved by the Tokyo government, and it is now known as Apricot NPO.

“As some of the international aid agencies began to wind down their activities in Japan in 2012, we in the Japanese mental health care system could see the day coming around when it would be necessary to help support mental health care professionals to provide treatment and emotional and psychological support to the survivors,” explains Grimes.

As Apricot is based in Tokyo, the group’s primary objective is to raise and distribute funds to support NPOs with similar objectives working in Tohoku.

In addition to donations from sponsors, Apricot raises funds at various events. In keeping with its focus on children, the group held a face-painting booth at the ASEAN festival held in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park last summer. Earlier this month a fun-filled Belgian Market was held in cooperation with Belgium-affiliated firms and the country’s embassy.

Grimes stresses that post-disaster mental care is a long-term issue.

“Many of the victims of the 3/11 catastrophe are still living though crisis, stress and feelings of hopelessness for a happy future,” he says. “As an example of this, the national average for clinical depression is 15 percent, whereas according to a recently published medical research report, the figure in the Tohoku region is 24 percent and rising.”

Apricot’s mission is to continue raising funds until 2031, the year in which children born in the year of the Tohoku disaster will turn 20, thus reaching adulthood in the eyes of Japanese society. Grimes and his supporters welcome inquiries about volunteering.

“We would love to have any volunteers to support Apricot Children and would appreciate any help we can get. We have a team of hardworking and fun-loving individuals who would welcome the opportunity to meet and work with you.”

Save the Children Japan: www.savechildren.or.jp/index.html. Apricot: apricotchildren.org. Do you know about a citizens’ group or of any other helpful resources? Comments and questions: lifelines@japantimes.co.jp