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On the Ground After a Natural Disaster in Japan

Helping in the most basic ways goes a long way



Having the ability to create your own adventures outside of the office is important to enhancing any career. Edelman Escape is a unique program that provides select employees with a mini-, one-week sabbatical and $1,500 to pursue a dream, goal or experience that will enrich their lives. Just last month I had the opportunity to return to the Tohoku region of northern Japan and spend a week back in a village I lived in immediately after college. The only difference was that this time I was here to rebuild. In the 20 years since I had left, the region had been struck by a devastating earthquake and tsunami, which wiped out many of the villages along the coast and left over 18,000 people dead or missing.

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My plan was to “Give a Dream,” and return to the village where I used to live, and work with the folks on the ground on the next phase of the recovery – mental health. Since many survivors of the tsunami are suffering from PTSD, and Japanese people are famous for their “ganbatte” spirit (toughing things out), this was a real issue. I would be helping draft unique digital communications to help drive people into the NGO-run mental health clinics in each of the villages.

But between the time I planned my trip and when I got to the region, a typhoon had battered those same coastal villages, destroying entire blocks and leaving over 120 people dead or missing. And just like that, my “Give a Dream” changed to rebuilding the old-fashioned way: door-to-door and with physical labor.

One thing to know about this part of the country is that it is i-s-o-l-a-t-e-d. Many Japanese citizens from the larger cities, like Tokyo and Osaka, have never ventured this far north in their own country, so just getting to the village was a bit of an ordeal (or more aptly, a bit like the movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”). At any rate, once on the ground, I was able to connect with an NGO I had been in touch with earlier, and began surveying the damage from the typhoon and assisting with drying out houses and applying anti-mildewing agents to the exposed timber beams. This was an important step in the rebuilding process since the homes are in particularly humid areas.

In addition to the physical labor, I was invited to participate in the national moment of silence for the victims of the great tsunami at the behest of the village mayors, and learn about the myriad of government and NGO programs that have been deployed to help the people and businesses recover. Despite these setbacks, the will of people in this region perseveres, and I have no doubt they will be able to rebuild, stronger than ever.

On a personal note, this experience was part rebuilding and remembrance, exceeding and extending expectations for not only myself, but everyone we encountered. I’m grateful, and feel incredibly lucky to have had this experience with people I’ve known for a long time. If you’re flexible and up for the challenge, anyone can make a meaningful difference anywhere in the world.

Deven Nongbri is a vice president, Digital, Edelman Houston.

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