Mike Tharp: 'Thus if it be, indeed'

Gifts of hope to children who survived a catastrophe

July 9, 2011 

Maeko Lum, 8, from Yokohama, stood in the third-grade classroom at Tomodachi Gakko, Japanese Friendship School, in Cressey.

Looking at a visitor kneeling in front of her, she told him in Japanese about what it had been like to go through the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Yokohama is about 200 miles from the worst-hit part of the country, but the natural disaster still had rocked the little girl's life. "It was shaking," she remembered. "All of us were scared. It was my first time to go through an earthquake. They told us to be careful. We got under our desks. My mother and father came and we went home."

Maeko and her sister Kaimana, 9, are visiting Merced County this summer, staying with their grandmother, Emi Tamioka. With about 70 K-8 kids, 10 preschoolers and 20 teenaged helpers, they've spent all this week beating taiko drums, pounding mochi rice cakes, practicing kendo swordfighting, shaping bonsai plants, dancing o-bon festival steps and learning Japanese words -- all designed to acquaint them with Japanese culture and traditions.

Tomodachi Gakko is a week-long session held each summer at Cressey Elementary School. Kids come from all over, including Oregon and Alaska, and treat it as a learning vacation.

This year they also raised money. They staged a coin drive, sold "Help Japan" white wristbands and auctioned off a handmade quilt. All proceeds -- $855.43 -- will go to victims of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan three months ago. Both Lum sisters talked to their classmates about the experience of surviving an earthquake.

The fundraising and other efforts were coordinated by Nicole Isozaki, a teacher at the school, and Sheryl Okuye Sauter, co-director of the weeklong program, who taught English in Japan for three years in the 1990s. "They're just showing emotional support," says Sauter.

The school has operated since 1984, founded by second- and third-generation Japanese-Americans who have farmed much of the county and Valley since the early 20th century. Nearly all the parents of its students volunteer there, and so do many of the grandparents. Most of the students are Japanese-American, but Caucasian, Vietnamese-American and Latino kids also attend.

All week long, the kids wrote letters to their counterparts across the Pacific, expressing hopes for their health and safety. Sauter taught English to elementary school students in Chiba Prefecture through JET, the Japan Exchange and Teaching program. She'll send some of the letters to JET teachers she still knows in Japan. "It will be child-to-child directly," she explains. "The teachers will help them read the letters so they'll be part of their lessons too."

Here are some of them, unedited:

Dear earthquake and tsunami victims, I am so sorry for all the terrible tragedies that happened where you lived! I just want you to know that I pray for you every day! Tomi, 5th Grade

Always hold onto your hope -- never ever let go. William, 6th Grade

Dear Sowandsow, hello my name is James. I am 7 years old and I live in Murphys California. I am sad about the tsunami and earthquake. We are sending money from Tomodachi Gakko. James, 2nd Grade

Hi, my name is Everett. I hope you are ok. I am sending money to you. PS. I live in California. Everett, 2nd Grade

I'm writing to you because I wanted you to know that I'm thinking about you and sending you lots of wishes that your country will be well soon !! Brenna, 5th Grade

Hold on to your hope always, don't let them go away. I'll fly there to save you [written next to a drawing of a butterfly] by Rachel, 6th Grade

I feel tremendously sad about the series of bad luck. We give you the upmost respect. We hope your state builds up again. Me myself have always wanted to go to Japan. We are donating money to rebuild your homes. I wish I could offer you food, but by the time it will get there the food would be rotten. Life must be hard for you: no house, food is scarce, and loved ones past away. I wish I was there to support you. Please just know that I'm trying to help rebuild your state. Kaileb, 5th Grade

Dear Friend, I hope that you are all right after that devastating earthquake and tsunami. Keri, 7th Grade

I am writing this letter because I want you to know that we in the United States are thinking about you and trying to help you as much as we can. One thing I know is that things will get better. I have been going to Japan camp and our main priority this year is to raise money to help your cause in Japan. Best of luck. David, 8th grade.

I was devastated when I heard about the tsunami and earthquake. Don't forget that we are praying for you and that there are many others as well as ourselves who are raising money for your cause. Lucy, 8th grade.

Sayonara, the Japanese farewell, doesn't exactly mean "goodbye." It's made up of Kanji characters that mean "thus if it be, indeed."

This week, in a small school surrounded by dusty almond orchards, several dozen kids gave their own gifts of hope to kids their same age across an ocean.

Thus if it be, indeed.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com

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