Japan's new post-quake orphan problem seeks permanent solution

Japan's new post-quake orphan problem seeks permanent solution

Volunteer networks help the youngest victims begin again

A boy who survived the tsunami plays in a toy car in front of a real car that's been upended against a tree since March 11.Even more than six weeks on, it’s still difficult to estimate the number of children who have been orphaned by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11.

The Ministry of Health has registered around 100 confirmed cases, but the number is expected to rise as more of the people listed as missing are confirmed dead. For some of the kids left behind, the path to recovery will be harder than others and they are likely to end up in state care.

Support project

In Japan, fostering and adoption are still very rare. Without a living relative to take over their care, some of the orphans in Tohoku will be placed into group homes. Often, although staff care for their charges and are doing their best in a less-than-ideal situation, the homes are under-resourced, overcrowded and short-handed.

The founder of Smile Kids Japan, Michael Maher King, unloads supplies at a Kesennuma evacuation center.The founder of Smile Kids Japan, Michael Maher King, unloads supplies at a Kesennuma evacuation center.

That’s why NGO Living Dreams, which matches volunteers with orphanages in the Tokyo area, and Smile Kids Japan, a nationwide volunteer network founded by British teacher Michael Maher King, have teamed up to raise money and volunteers to help out orphanages in Tohoku.

They've named their scheme the Tohoku Kids Support Project and are hoping to provide a lot more than just the immediate necessities.

“Having worked with many orphanages, I know how important it is for these kids to feel normal,” says Amy Moyers-Knopp, the project's co-director. “They need stability in their lives and dreams to look forward to.”

First steps

The project went on its first run to the northeast in late March, delivering basic supplies, food and some toys to an orphanage and an elementary school in Kesennuma that is currently acting as a shelter.

They've also been in contact with 18 homes in the affected prefectures to determine their current situation, how exactly they have been affected, how many new kids they might care for and their immediate needs.

King spends time with children at the Kesennuma Children's Home after their hometown was swept away by the tsunami.King spends time with children at the Kesennuma Children's Home after their hometown was swept away by the tsunami.

“This will be our starting base for delivering support,” says Moyers-Knopp, explaining that the efforts are split into two tiers.

Firstly, they want to replace the personal items that have been lost in the disaster, such as toys, school supplies and clothing.

“Although placing too much emphasis on material possessions is something we want to be mindful of, we also understand the reality -- kids place importance on things like toys, games, dolls, books and bikes -- things that make them kids and unique young individuals,” she says.

The hope is that having a few personal items replaced will mark the first small steps towards normalcy for kids trying to come to terms with their new situation.

New normal

For the second tier, the project will address counseling needs and provide therapeutic activities. While there will be a focus on providing the mental-health services needed, Tohoku Kids Support Project aims to facilitate regular, volunteer-led events that give the children something fun to do with a trusted adult whose only goal is to spend time with them.

Says Moyers-Knopp, “While it is hard to imagine these homes hosting dance lessons or kids' yoga classes right now, these are exactly the types of activities we hope to connect to the homes, so their kids can start to feel like kids again and feel some sense of normal.”

In the long term, the project members hope that providing material necessities, a reliable and friendly adult presence and something to look forward to day-by-day will bring enough stability, warmth and fun back into the lives of Tohoku orphans to ensure they can get through the early days of the crisis and start rebuilding their lives.

Anyone interested in volunteering should get in touch with Living Dreams or Smile Kids Japan. Donations are also welcome through GlobalGiving.
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