Tohoku volunteer work shifts from labor to care


Volunteers providing support in disaster-hit Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures are shifting from manual labor, such as removing debris, to providing mental and other kinds of care to survivors, especially the elderly and children.

Organizers continue to call on people nationwide to participate in volunteer work to meet their diversifying needs.

“Let’s become No. 1 in contemporary Japanese,” said Naoto Yamazaki, a University of Tokyo student, as he tutored 12-year-old Hiroki Suto, who is in his first year of junior high school, at an evacuation shelter in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture.

Volunteers from the university have been helping out since May by cooking meals at the shelter.

Starting in August, they also began tutoring.

“I’m happy because it’s easy to understand,” Suto said.

“When I heard that children were behind with their studies, we thought we needed to offer support to children as well from this point forward,” said Shotaro Tsuya, 23, a graduate student at Todai.

According to a poll conducted in June by the Sendai Council of Social Welfare, which operates the city’s volunteer center, only about 100 out of 1,851 households said they needed help in manual labor, including removing debris and moving into temporary housing.

So the organization decided to shift its focus to checking on the elderly to prevent them from becoming isolated, doing their shopping for daily needs and organizing events.

The group also stopped accepting “walk-in” volunteers and switched to a registration-based system so it could match the changing needs of the victims with volunteers’ abilities.

The city of Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, has also placed more weight on providing care to the elderly by visiting temporary housing and listening to the inhabitants’ troubles and concerns.

“Our task is to prevent elderly people from dying alone and preventing suicides,” a city official said.

Volunteers, meanwhile, may need to upgrade their skills to meet emerging needs.

“Someone with expertise needs to provide mental care on a long-term basis,” said a 64-year-old volunteer from Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture.

Fukushima Prefecture’s volunteer center also said it plans to shift to providing care for the people in temporary housing.

The need for grunt labor, however, hasn’t entirely disappeared.

Volunteers to remove debris are still needed in the city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, which suffered huge damage from the earthquake and tsunami.

As of Aug. 8, an estimated 660,000 volunteers had offered help in the three prefectures.

Still, all three prefectures are having trouble ensuring a stable supply of participants and are making efforts to improve the environment for volunteers.

For example, Minamisanriku is reinforcing efforts to accept the “volunteer buses” that shuttle volunteers into and out of the disaster-hit areas.

The city of Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture meanwhile has hired a nurse to care for volunteers.