U.S. teacher stays to return favor to helpful residents of Miyagi town

by Mizuho Aoki

TAGAJO, Miyagi Pref. — Kyle Maclauchlan, an English-language teacher from the United States, experienced a nightmare when the March 11 monster earthquake and tsunami devastated the small Miyagi Prefecture town he lived in and wiped away most of his belongings.

But he, along with many of his non-Japanese friends here, decided to stay.

“I didn’t want to leave Japan this way,” said the 30-year-old, who has been working at Tagajo Junior High School in Tagajo, Miyagi Prefecture, as an assistant language teacher for three years. “I wanted to be here where I can help. It was important for me to stay and be with people who helped me for so long.”

The magnitude 9 earthquake rocked the building, throwing computers and papers all over the place and making a hopeless mess in the teacher’s room.

When the tsunami warning came, the teachers rushed to the third floor even as the building continued to rock back and forth.

The tsunami never reached the school. But just down the street it destroyed almost everything, including his entire wardrobe and brand-new iPod Touch, in Maclauchlan’s first-floor apartment.

When the mega-quake hit the Tohoku region, Maclauchlan was with colleagues at the school. They had just ended a graduation ceremony and sent the students home.

Not only had he lost a place to live, the repeated aftershocks prevented sleep, and the lingering radiation threat worried sick his mother back home in Virginia.

But Maclauchlan will stay in Tohoku to lend a hand to those recovering from the devastation.

“For the three years, everyone has been very supportive of me and they’ve been my friends,” he explained. “It’s tough to see things like the nuclear power plant situation. But this has been my home for so long and I couldn’t just leave.”

Since that day, Maclauchlan has been working at evacuation centers and a local church to help hand out supplies and food. He stays at a friend’s house, with a colleague or at the church, moving every three or four days.

In his spare time, he and his friends — both foreigners and Japanese — have been working to establish a system to bring in donations from overseas.

With support from the nonprofit Miyagi English Educational Support Association, Maclauchlan and his friends set up Teachers for Japan, which they hope to link to PayPal to use its digital money transfer system.

“We’ve got a lot of people back home who want to support us,” Maclauchlan said. “Especially the people who went home after the tsunami. They really want to do something. Once we get that international pipeline set up, we can definitely harness that good will and do something good here.”

Maclauchlan said they want to use the funds for education and to help people lead better lives.

Tagajo, a coastal town of 60,000 before the March 11 quake, is not among the worst-hit areas. Yet the death toll was 177 and 15 people were still missing as of Wednesday. As of Tuesday, 1,811 residents were still living in shelters.

Gradually over the past few weeks, the living environment has improved as water, electricity and gas are re-connected to houses. More shops are open and people can buy food without waiting hours in line.

“We are going to be in a transition period where people want to go from being in a shelter to (the phase) they want to live, want to stand on their own feet and live their own lives,” Maclauchlan said. “We want to financially support these people.”

Although he has been focusing on reviving the community, things have been tough on him, too. He has yet to find a new apartment.

He says when he feels anxiety he tries to remind himself that his situation is good compared with those who have lost their families.

“I have friends who have been helping me and letting me stay with their families,” Maclauchlan said.

And there is at least one silver lining to the disaster.

“(We have) built such great relationships with people here,” he said. “Because people are really kind of coming together and talking more, I almost feel more a part of the community now than I ever felt before.

“My goal is to stay in Japan long enough to make a difference. When I do leave, I want to leave Japan the way it’s always been in my mind. I want it to be a beautiful place . . . the way I’ve always seen it.”

For information on Teachers for Japan, visit teachersforjapan.org.