Child Friendly Space Brings Smiles to the Faces of Anxious Children

Stephen_McDonald Stephen McDonald, Save the Children Senior Emergency Adviser

Tokyo, Japan

Thursday, March 17, 2011


We have finally commenced our operation in Sendai, after a ten-hour overnight trek, some rapid assessments, and agreement with one of the evacuation centers to set up our first Child Friendly Space in Nanagou.  

When we were there yesterday, the children were tired, anxious and stressed. There weren’t many smiles, with some of them quietly following their parents around, others sitting in the stairwells, and a few young boys running up and down the corridors of what last week was their primary school.  

Letters and messages are posted on the walls, some to tell people that the author was safe, others, sadly, asking if people had seen relatives or friends. With our Child Friendly Space established, the first group of children came in to start activities like drawing and colouring with our enthusiastic and committed Japanese staff.  

It didn’t take long for the first smiles to break out, smiles that hadn’t been there the day before when we came to assess the situation. At the same time I had sent a team some 40miles north of Sendai to the town of Ishinomaki, where they found a scene of utter devastation. Ian Woolverton, my close colleague and friend who went with the team called me and said, “We’ve got to get up here. The needs of the children are massive.” 

I asked him to get as much information as he could, but he went one step further, and got some good intel for me about the possibility of setting up some Child Friendly Spaces. I hope to get up there tomorrow or the next day to get it set up. We face multiple challenges here. We are faced with fuel, food and water shortages. So it is tremendously difficult to establish supply lines, especially since staff are fatigued and stressed.  

This emergency is proving much more complex than I thought when I left home, giving my wife and two sleeping children a kiss goodbye, and heading to the airport only six hours after the quake struck. Add to this the anxiety amongst the population and our staff about the Fukushima Nuclear Reactor, and this is proving to be one of the most difficult tasks I’ve ever undertaken.  

Despite these frustrations, the long days, and the yearning to be home with my own children there is one thing I can say about today. We put smiles on the faces of 33 children. That’s what I love about this job. 

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Japanese Respond to Disaster With Quiet Determination

Awander Andrew Wander, Save the Children Media Manager

Tokyo, Japan

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


The aftershocks come so often in Tokyo that no-one at Save the Children's office pays them much attention anymore. They usually start with an alarm on the television, giving a few seconds warning before the floor begins to judder, sometimes building in strength, sometimes fading away to stillness. It feels a bit like being on a boat, only on the fourth floor of an office block in the middle of a city.

If it's a particularly strong tremor, there might be some nervous smiles exchanged- we all know that another powerful quake remains a very real possibility. But there is urgent work to be done, and the atmosphere of quiet focus returns as soon as the ground stills beneath our feet.

It's the same with concerns over the nuclear reactor to the north of here. We all know there is a chance that the situation will deteriorate and radiation levels will rise. There's scant reassurance to be drawn from the apocalyptic headlines in the international media, and the team are working with one eye on the latest radiation readings announced on the rolling news coverage.

But short of making contingency plans, there's not much we can do about it. For now, levels of radiation are safe in the places we're working, and unless they rise, there is no reason for us to change what we're doing. In the meantime, a lot is getting done. As part of a team of international staff here in Tokyo, I'm watching the quiet determination of the dozens of Japanese staff members turn into results in the field.

Since the quake struck on Friday, Save the Children has made serious progress in our response. Our first child friendly space opened in Sendai on Wednesday, and the team there are looking to scale up their operations as soon as possible.

More spaces should be opening in evacuation centres across the affected area in the next few days, making a big difference to some of the 100,000 children caught up in this emergency.

That couldn't happen without our staff in Tokyo working around the clock to support our teams in the field, purchasing supplies, planning logistics, producing communications material and working with the media. The challenge is enormous, but the people here are meeting it.

We knew as soon as we saw the pictures coming out of Japan last Friday that this would not be simple. Events over the past few days have proven us right. But there is no doubt we are making progress, despite the constant growls of the earth and the ever-present spectre of the radiation.

There is a sense that our Japanese staff are drawing inspiration from each other's commitment, and in so doing, are helping their country take the first tentative steps towards recovery from one of the greatest disasters in its long, proud history.

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Witnessing Decimated Sendai

Iwoolverton Ian Woolverton, Save the Children Media Manager

Sendai, Japan

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


The clock in the vehicle says it's 5:44am, as we pass through a police road block approximately 25 miles from Sendai, the city of more than one million people affected by the tsunami and earthquake.

Even though the roads were empty, it took ten hours to drive this far north from Toyko.

We're in a two vehicle convoy stuffed to the gills with basic essentials such as water, food and toilet paper as well as one van brimming with enough gear to set up a child friendly space.

As the sun starts its slow rise, I make out mountainous silhouettes on either side of the road. The outside temperature is close to freezing and there is thick grey fog. Apart from the cold it is a beautiful place.

I wonder though what unsettling sites await us in the coastal areas of Sendai?

Fact is this is my first experience of a disaster in a developed country, and I can't quiet get to grips with the fact that there is mass devastation ahead.

I'm even more perplexed as we pull into the city. Apart from a large group of Japanese engineers in dark blue uniforms and white hard hats congregated in one ultra-modern office block, there are no clues that a major earthquake occurred here last week.

It's not until you leave the city limits and head north-east that the extent of the tsunami damage, triggered by the earthquake, becomes clear.

Entire fields are full of debris including corrugated iron, furniture, toys, up-turned cars as well as a bewildering array of bits and pieces. It's possible too that human bodies are buried somewhere beneath the rubble.

SENDAI_012_85101Save the Children team leader Stephen McDonald surveys the aftermath of the the earthquake triggered tsunami which devastated Sendai, Japan.
(Photo by Jensen Walker/ Getty Images for Save the Children)
 

The scenes of devastation here remind me of what I witnessed all over Aceh Province following the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia.

It's horrible to think that children might have been killed in the tsunami, or that some of them might have become separated from their families during the earthquake and disaster.

Over the coming weeks and months in Japan, Save the Children will provide psycho-social support to children in the form of child friendly spaces.

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Surveying the Destructive Force of the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

Iwoolverton Ian Woolverton, Save the Children Media Manager

Tokyo, Japan

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Landing at Tokyo's international airport this morning after a long flight from Sydney, Australia, I looked up at a television screen to see images of a nuclear reactor with a headline, "Explosion at Fukushima reactor."

Add to that an aftershock or two (there have been 400-500 aftershocks since Friday's devastating earthquake and tsunami), and I started to question why I was here.

But as the world's leading independent organization for children, we are in the business of helping children and their families affected by disasters at home and overseas as well as in developed and less developed countries.

By now we've all seen the images of the awesome destructive power of the tsunami that wreaked havoc along the east coast of Japan's most densely populated Honshu island, home to famous cities like Tokyo and for all the wrong reasons, Sendai, the city that was smashed to pieces by the tsunami.

But what's less well reported is the damage caused to other centers of population like Asahi City, where I'm headed now. Here the authorities estimate nearly 19,000 households have been affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

Sitting in the back of a Save the Children vehicle on a beautiful spring Sunday morning we speed toward the city.At this point I could be lulled into a false sense of security. There are no signs that we're headed to a disaster area. I can honestly say I have not seen any earthquake damage to buildings and homes. This is testament to Japan's strict building codes that ensure all buildings are built to withstand even the most severe earthquakes.

But no government, however wealthy, can be expected to prevent, in some areas, 10 metre tsunami waves gobbling up everything from articulated trucks to houses, schools and, tragically, people.

And it is this new reality that I fear will greet us as we draw closer to Asahi City.

So, why have we come here? Why aren't we up north in Sendai? Fact is, there has been so much attention on Sendai, and the Japanese authorities are so good at disaster response that we want to focus our attention on meeting the unmet needs of children and their families in other areas that might get overlooked. I'm not suggesting we will put the needs of children in Sendai to one side. Of course we won't since the needs there are massive, but we want to ensure children up and down the east coast get the help they need as well.

Our ambition in tsunami-affected areas is to open what's known as Child Friendly Spaces, effectively a play space where children can play with other children of a similar age under close supervision from responsible adults. The idea is to relieve the stress on parents and to give them a break from childcare duties as they register for emergency assistance.

But there's another reason to run Child Friendly Spaces, and that's to allow children to return to as normal an environment as possible (given the circumstances).

Our experience in decades of disaster response shows us that children must be returned to a normal routine as quickly as possible to help ward off the risk of long-term psychological problems.

Arriving in Asahi it is clear many children and their families need help.

Along the sea front, homes have been decimated and become caked in mud. I met people sweeping mud from their homes, without much success it has to be said.

The streets nearest the beach are full of bizarre sights like overturned vehicles wedged in houses or leaning on walls. I've seen these scenes before in places like Aceh following the tsunami in Indonesia, but I'm always in awe of how brutal mother nature can be.

The most distressing experience for me was meeting Natsumi (10) and Nao (11) Nakazawa who were afraid of the water and desperate to return to school to be with friends they'd not seen since the earthquake and tsunami.

I also met the Takane family who, along with hundreds of families, had sought shelter in one of 17 classrooms at IIzuka Primary School.

Mom Mariko and her four children Yuto (8), Aika (7), Kanato (1) and newborn Amihi had been living in a small classroom since Friday.'

At first they were afraid to go home, but once they summoned the courage to return they found there was no water supply, leaving them little choice but to return to the school for shelter.

Sadly, I suspect that the Takane's story is one playing out up and down the east coast of Japan's most densely populated island.

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