While Others Waited, ‘The Y’ Plunged In

Community ties crucial in scramble by 2 groups to aid earthquake victims hours after disaster

By Brian Covert
Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

KOBE— By 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 17, the YMCA had established a headquarters to coordinate Kobe quake relief efforts among its 171 branches nationwide. By about 2:30 p.m., a regional headquarters had been set up at the Osaka YMCA in Nishi Ward, Osaka.

Amid reports of delays and other problems with official relief efforts [after the Great Hanshin Earthquake], the Young Men’s Christian Association and Young Women’s Christian Association stand out as two examples of what went right.

Within 24 hours of the quake, relief aid began trickling in to the Kobe YWCA in Chuo Ward via volunteers biking or walking it in. Some staff members from the Osaka YWCA started out on foot from Kita Ward, Osaka, at 10 a.m. and arrived at the Kobe YWCA 10 hours later.

About 30 volunteers with cars were mobilized to help take supplies into Kobe. Two truckloads of supplies arrived the day after the quake, and one truck per day after that.

Backpack-clad volunteers at the Kobe YWCA divided neighborhoods into six-block sections and assigned three-person groups to canvass their assigned areas on bicycle or on foot. They then handout out food and other necessities they brought along.

“Our priority was not the victims who entered the public evacuation centers and had access to food and clothes,” said Keiko Maeda, 35, a leader of Kobe YWCA relief efforts, “but those who were staying in parks or parking lots and couldn’t get anything. It was an ‘unequal’ situation, and those were the people we targeted.”

Depending on the extent of their injuries, victims were taken to nearby health centers or referred to volunteer physicians and nurses.

Many of the initial 60 staff and volunteers at the Kobe YWCA were themselves victims who lost houses, friends or relatives in the quake.

About 35 victims and YWCA dorm students took refuge at the Kobe YWCA’s chapel and other facilities after the temblor. The old concrete wall of the elevated center crumbled in the quake, but structurally, the building has been safe and habitable as a community shelter and information center for foreign and Japanese residents, Maeda says.

Similarly, the three YMCA branches in the Kobe area suffered little structural damage and were thus able to function as relief outposts for their communities.

About 200 volunteers at the YMCA branch in Nagata Ward handed supplies coming in from far western Japan and Okinawa. The Sannomiya branch, with about 40 volunteers, was made a contact point with Kyoto via railways lines. And a couple hundred volunteers based at the Nishinomiya branch coordinated YMCA relief efforts east of the quake zone, from Osaka to Hokkaido.

Volunteers and staff members from YMCA centers throughout the Kinki region and beyond were assigned five to a group to scan neighborhoods and tend to victims such as the elderly and the disabled who had trouble caring for themselves, said Katsushige Majima, executive director of the Osaka YMCA International Program Center and secretary general of the Kansai NGO Council.

Nongovernmental organizations such as the YMCA and YWCA had substantial advantages over official aid providers.

First, both groups have been in close contact with the Kansai foreign and Japanese communities for decades and literally know their neighbors. Second, unlike official efforts, the YWCAs and YMCAs accepted donations from affiliated branches around the world. Third, the YMCA has long experience in hosting campouts at its 24 campgrounds around Japan, so the “survival skills” of group leaders were strong.

One month after the quake, both organizations found themselves with an adequate supply of donated goods — yet more financially strapped than ever and trying to deal with burnout among an otherwise energetic volunteer corps.

As for the future, both organizations have their own plans in coping with the earthquake’s ripple effects.

The YWCA is now working on the “emotional aftershocks” on the quake victims through professional psychological counseling encompassed under a program called “Kokoko no Care” (Heart Care).

“It’s important that we Kobe citizens get together and help out each other because sooner or later volunteers from other places will return home,” said Maeda. “We need to think about the long run.”

“You know about the ‘lifeline’ supplies of water, gas and electricity overseen by the official channels,” said Kensuke Ohmigishi, 47, executive director of the YMCA Wellness Center Sannomiya and a leader in YMCA relief operations. “Our focus from the beginning was the ‘heartline’ supplies, the emotional needs of people in the quake.”

Though the YMCA and YWCA differ in their approaches, representatives of both organizations see the immediate “emergency phase” of the quake as being over for now and maintain that a long-term commitment to real community service will be needed for at least the first year after the quake.

“We have some ideas on how to help, but the victims themselves are the ones to decide where to go from here,” said Sachie Shikano, Osaka YWCA general secretary.

“When will our (quake-related) activities be finished?” mused YMCA’s Ohmigishi. “When each community is rebuilt one by one.”