Since April 11, around 770 volunteers from 30 countries have clocked up 42,000 hours cleaning up and repairing in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, with U.S.-based NGO All Hands. A partnership with Habitat for Humanity Japan has enabled All Hands to keep this seaside hamlet supplied with a steady influx of volunteers eager to help with the recovery effort following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

“All Hands were able to establish themselves on the ground and we were able to bring them volunteers,” explains Malvin Pagdanganan, HFHJ’s project manager for the Japan Disaster Response Program.

“The partnership is a-two pronged affair with HFHJ bringing in weekend volunteer groups a few times a month and partially funding a house-repairs and small-repairs program,” says Pagdanganan. “All Hands then houses, feeds and coordinates the volunteers and the projects they work on from their Sakari headquarters. Most volunteers apply directly through www.hands.org.”

Marc Young, the director of global operations for All Hands, made it to Japan just three days after the quake, and was introduced through contacts in Tokyo and the Morioka Chamber of Commerce to Ofunato Mayor Kimiake Toda, who gave All Hands the green light to set up shop.

Toda remembers that after the disasters of March 11, the Iwate government asked about sending international rescue teams to help. “I told them: ‘Do not refuse,’ ” he says. Rescue teams from the U.S., U.K. and China played roles in the rescue missions in Ofunato in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami.

Toda, who has spent more than half his life living abroad in five different countries while working in construction, including a year at Harvard, welcomes the outside world’s help. “We are all people, we can work together,” he says.

In a town where 331 people have been confirmed dead and 117 remain missing, and where 2,700 houses were destroyed and 420 more suffered over 50 percent damage on March 11, volunteer work remains essential.

“Because of the way the model is set up, you can come for one day. You basically just have to be willing to work,” explains All Hands’ Young. “We will provide the logistics, the tools, the food, the instruction, the supervisor that will enable you to work productively for one day — and because of that, because of the way the model is set up, you can plug in.”

First-timers to Japan, including people of Japanese ancestry who had never visited these shores before, are among those who have come to assist in the Ofunato cleanup, Marc explains. He’s proud that All Hands has enabled many people, both with and without prior connections to Japan, to volunteer their time for Ofunato and the nearby city of Rikuzentakata.

“It’s a strange phenomenon in my mind — but it happened in Haiti, it happened in Indonesia — where you have people that their mother and father may have been born there, immigrated to the United States, to England or to Australia or wherever. They had been born (abroad) and they had never been back. But for some reason they find security in volunteering with us,” says Young.

Chloe Marshall, a 19-year-old Oregon native, found All Hands online and spent a long time convincing her parents — who “were not OK with it” — to let her come and help. Having just finished her first year of design at university, she was looking for a summer project. Initially applying in May, there were too many applicants and she was turned down.

On receiving an email from All Hands inviting her to reapply, Marshall did so and was accepted. When she leaves Japan, she’ll only have one week to move into her accommodation before beginning the new semester. It’s her first time in Japan and she hadn’t really planned on visiting, but she felt she wanted to help.

“I really like gutting sites, because you are working there on a family’s property and ideally they’ll be there, and you get to meet them,” Marshall says.

She has fond memories of working for one old couple in particular.

“The wife was always there, feeding us snacks and forcing us to take breaks and, like, tricking us into it. She’d buy bags of ice cream and be like, ‘I don’t have a freezer so you have to eat it now’ — just little tricks like that,” Marshall recalls. “Those personal connections you make . . . I really underestimated it. I thought we’d be spending time with the community, but not that personal.”

While many volunteers are first-timers in Japan, others are former residents returning to pay back some of the goodwill they received when living here.

Having lived in Fukushima Prefecture for five years, Phil Macdonald, 31, from England, found All Hands randomly when he googled “volunteer work Tohoku.”

“I had good recommendations from other people as well,” the freelance translator explains. He says he’s planning to stay two months, because “it’s a long term project and I’d like to do as much as I can.”

“I hope to make a positive difference. I hope to meet the locals and see what they feel about it and hope that they appreciate what we are doing — what all the volunteers are doing, not just the foreign ones,” he says.

Seventy-two-year-old Teruo Sugawara oversees the volunteer work around the damaged remains of his fish cannery in Ofunato. Nearby, the All Hands and Habitat for Humanity Japan volunteers clear surrounding drainage canals.

“South Africa, Italy, Egypt, Spain, Vietnam, China, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan and America are all places I have been for my fish trade,” he says. “Foreigners are no different, not scary,” he adds when asked whether the presence of so many outsiders makes him feel uneasy. Six workers in his fish-processing factory were also Chinese, but they returned to their homeland after the quake and tsunami.

Sugawara’s wife appears on her bicycle and lays out some homemade side dishes to go with the volunteers’ lunches. Her food is delicious and all the volunteers are appreciative.

The canal-clearing project is just one of many that All Hands is currently involved in. On the Friday before I arrived, their volunteers were working on 14 projects, their largest number to date. With a record number of volunteers involved in an unprecedented number of projects, the movement appears to be growing rather than weakening, Young says.

The situation is “so different from where we were in May,” he explains. “(Local) people were nervous, people were hesitant, they were reluctant to put themselves out there, to come to us, to speak to us because we are foreign. There were groups that we bumped into from Tokyo, even in May, and they said to us, ‘How are you guys even doing this? How are you guys getting any work, because it’s a struggle for us, too.’ “

Young first noticed a change in attitude among local people after he returned from a board meeting in the U.S. in June. On his way to check up on a park the volunteers had cleaned up, people putting their garbage out greeted and thanked Young — who was wearing an All Hands T-shirt — for all the work they were doing.

It was the shift from inside to outside work that changed the attitudes of locals, Young thinks.

“On the roadside, they can stop and walk up to you; it’s one of those things I would have never ever guessed,” he says. “Do the canals need to be cleared? Yes, that seems like a worthwhile project. But I would never ever have guessed that that would open the door to the community, because we are visible and accessible.”

The early stages of the volunteer work were tough, explains Toby Poole, All Hands’ volunteer coordinator. “There was some hard work. It was mentally and emotionally challenging at times.

“It was very different to the work we are doing now. You are not going into a home that was filled to head height with general debris. It doesn’t stink of fish; we don’t find blocks of 50 fish at the bottom of a room, which is how it ended up in a lot of places. Because there are canneries along all the sea front and they stored all their fish in frozen blocks of about 50 fish. And then the tsunami came and lifted up all these blocks and just dispersed them around the entire town.”

Toby first volunteered with All Hands after the 2009 Sumatra earthquake in Indonesia. This time he has returned to the NGO to coordinate the volunteers for All Hands Japan, on his first-ever visit to the country. The 30-year-old from Bristol in southwest England describes how his day often starts with a light shower of questions from volunteers as he swings down from his bunk at 7.15 every morning.

The volunteers come from all walks of life. Chris Schuerch, 47, a banker from Zurich, was clearing drains along the highway when I met him. “I had a chance to live here for three years and I wanted to give something back,” he explained.

All the volunteers were in awe of Schuerch’s meticulous cleaning of the highway-side drains. Gutters full of mud and sludge when he started work were spotless by the time he had finished with them.

The highways team now has daily visitors. The affectionately named “highway ladies” bring cold drinks, snacks and sometimes home-made sushi rolls. Arriving at around 2 p.m., they set up under a tent and wait for the volunteers to take a break.

Nagoya student Isako Matsuoka, 20, has been volunteering with her campus HFHJ chapter since May. She was one of the first group of young volunteers, dubbed the “pilot team,” sent north by HFHJ to join with All Hands.

“They are different to Japan,” Matsuoka says admiringly of the foreign volunteers. “They stopped work, took long holidays and went to a country they had never been before to help.” She feels that this would not generally happen in Japan and says she feels moved by what everyone has done.

While All Hands was due to wind up volunteer operations on Sept. 30, they have now been incorporated as an NPO in Japan and are here to stay. Volunteer operations will continue until late November, after which their activities will shift towards microfinance and rebuilding. It seems there will be more volunteers heading to the scenic coastal town of Ofunato to help out and connect with the local community over the next few months.

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