For the countless victims of the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis that occurred in Japan last March, a small amount of hope can go a long way. Linda Ando, academic counselor with the University of Washington’s Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity, brought that message of hope and compassion to disaster victims in May.
After overseeing the effort to create approximately 80 “Prayer Flags of Hope” made by elementary school students in Issaquah and Seattle area community members, Ando personally delivered those flags to a shelter in Fukushima, as well as some relatives of a close friend living in Sendai. The prevailing message all the way from Seattle to Japan was that they were not alone.
“I’ve always respected and valued Tibetan prayer flags,” Ando said. “In the devastated tsunami and earthquake region, we hope that our prayer flags of hope will bless the people and land as the wind blows.”
The idea to create the flags followed her involvement as a member of the volunteer board for the local group, Artists for Japan. Just a few weeks after the earthquake and tsunami hit, Artists for Japan held a two-day art sale at the KOBO at Higo gallery and store in the International District that featured donated works from approximately 150 local artists. Hundreds of people turned out and waited in the rain just for a chance to buy a piece of artwork with all proceeds going to the Red Cross to help Japan’s relief efforts. The event raised $94,000.
Ando was inspired by the community’s outpouring of generosity and wanted to do even more to help. She teamed up with friend and Seattle artist June Sekiguchi whose aunt and uncle live in Sendai, the nearest major city to the epicenter of the March 11 earthquake. Ando held a workshop at the KOBO at Higo gallery and store for community members to help decorate the flags and engaged the help of Sekiguchi’s 11-year-old son Jaden and his Issaquah Valley Elementary School classmates to create many of the flags as well.
Ando was going to mail the flags to Sekiguchi’s relatives in Japan until she met a local director with the American Red Cross while volunteering at another relief event. She received contact information for Ryan Okamoto, deputy director for general planning and coordination with Japan Red Cross. After a few Skype meetings with him, Okamoto arranged for her to visit the Fukushima shelter on Monday, May 9.
Ando had already planned to accompany her mother on a trip to Japan and was able to arrange the visit to the shelter during that time. She witnessed the effects of the disasters first-hand when she toured the sports arena filled with cardboard boxes serving as makeshift living quarters for hundreds of people displaced by the disasters. Ando, who speaks Japanese, was able to converse with residents.
“I think they were very touched that people outside of Japan – people who don’t know them – care because each of these prayer flags were individually designed,” she said. “We’ve raised a lot of money but it’s not tangible yet. Maybe this would be something visually that lifts their spirit. I believe compassion, love, and care can lift a person from afar. Watching Japanese news when I was there…people want to laugh again, they want to live again, however it is hard.”
Ando’s visit to the shelter was covered by a local Japanese newspaper and the article portrayed a similar message of informing the people within that region that they are not alone and not forgotten. While Ando brought a message of hope to the people of Japan from Seattle, in turn she hopes to spread a different message back to the United States.
“The area impacted is devastated and they will need help for a long, long time,” Ando said. “But the other side is you can help by still visiting. Don’t cancel your trips or business ventures in Japan. It was a little shocking to see all the foreigners gone in Tokyo and other regions not affected by the earthquake and tsunami. People can still go overseas to teach, to study abroad. This is where our global consciousness and global responsibility come in. Disasters give humanity an opportunity to step in and help one another because when it happens to them, it happens to all of us.”
Following her visit to the shelter, Ando personally delivered flags to Sekiguchi’s aunt and uncle in Sendai and she continues to be involved in further relief efforts.
“It’s compassion in action,” Ando said. “I really believe in that. We have compassion, but to move it into action is so important.”