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Kindergarten aids disaster victims

Catholic-run school acts as center of relief operations in ruined quake city

Parents and guardians look at items provided by relief organizations to Kesennuma Catholic Kindergarten
Parents and guardians look at items provided by relief organizations to Kesennuma Catholic Kindergarten
  • Japan
  • May 5, 2011
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Kesennuma Catholic Kindergarten held a ceremony recently to welcome new children and kick off the school year, an event that was postponed due to the disasters that ravaged the region.

Current students, teachers and parents clapped out a cadence as the new students entered the kindergarten’s auditorium. The principal gave them a warm welcome.

“We have all been looking forward to having you join us,” Father Takashi Aizu of Sendai diocese told them.

Some of the new intake cried a little during the ceremony, but Toshiko Komatsu, who has worked at the kindergarten for over 30 years and now serves as vice-principal, said with a smile, “This normal event is important, especially at this time.”

Kesennuma City, in northern Miyagi Prefecture, was devastated on March 11. The city, whose population had been 74,000 at the end of February, lost at least 884 people as a result of the 9.0 magnitude quake and resulting tsunami. As of the end of April, more than 5,700 people were still living in temporary evacuation centers throughout the city.

The kindergarten’s closing ceremony for the previous school year had been scheduled for March 15 and was delayed until the end of the month; one child who was to graduate was never found following the disasters.

Of the 61 children who attend the kindergarten, three were absent and one was attending despite living in an emergency shelters. Many more were getting by staying with relatives.

On that fateful day on March 11, some children were waiting at the kindergarten for parents to pick them up when the earthquake and tsunami struck, while others had already gone home by school bus. After staff sent the last children home with their families, they made their way through streets choked with rubble to emergency shelters, searching for the children who had left earlier to make sure they were safe.

Although electricity, gas, and water were still cut, the kindergarten resumed providing some childcare services, which it has customarily offered when the school was not in session.

“We have been staying at my parents’ house since the quake, but it was a godsend for [my son to be able to go to the kindergarten] to play, even though he had only just enrolled and the school year hadn’t started yet,” said one mother, Kano Sato.

At last, relief supplies started trickling into the kindergarten, and the first thoughts the teachers, including vice-principal Komatsu, had were the faces of the homeless they had seen.

To help these people, they began going round the emergency shelters handing out supplies.

After a while, people started coming to the kindergarten themselves to seek provisions.

“We were really more concerned with distributing supplies than with preparing for the new school term,” said Komatsu.

The reason the school became so central to local relief efforts was that “the kindergarten knew all the families and had had a special connection with the neighborhood for more than 60 years since its founding,” explained Father Aizu.

After the opening ceremony, the pupils’ parents and guardians were urged to help themselves to whatever relief materials they needed. Aid workers had provided clothing—including hair accessories for girls—and other sundries, along with a request to parents: “Please dress them up nicely for their first day at school.”

One mother, Chikumi Hatakeyama, said: “At the closing ceremony on March 27, there was really nothing anyone could say. We were in the dark—no electricity or water. But just when we adults found it impossible to return to our normal lives, our children made things better just by doing it for us.”

Miki Ishikawa, mother of another toddler at the school, agreed: “Everyday life has begun again. I think it’s wonderful.”

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