Tomomi Sato, standing, waits on UMCOR consultant Noriko Lao at the Midtown Dream Factory, a bakery in Fukushima, Japan, that is staffed by and supports people with physical challenges.
By Wickham Boyle*
August 9, 2012—The great East Japan earthquake, which assaulted the island nation on March 11, 2011, radically altered the lives of so many people in Fukushima Prefecture. A peaceful land where natural beauty was abundant, it was hit with a triple disaster: an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear accident. As the world still holds its breath to see what the final outcome of that nuclear accident will be, the people of Fukushima forge ahead.
One young woman who epitomizes their pluck and tenacity is Tomomi Sato, 22. Tomomi, which means “beautiful mind” in Japanese, is legally blind. She left regular school in the seventh grade to pursue her education at a school for the blind, and it was there she found her calling to be a world-class athlete. A 100-meter runner, she won a bronze medal at the International Blind Sports Federation Games held in Turkey about a month after the disaster. She just missed being a part of the 2012 Special Olympics team by a heartbreaking four one-hundredths of a second.
Tomomi works at Machinaka Yume Kobo (Midtown Dream Factory), a bakery that is operated by UMCOR partner Shalom in support of people with physical challenges in Fukushima. Melissa Crutchfield, UMCOR executive for International Disaster Response, recently visited the bakery and met Tomomi as she served tea and pastries. “The bakery is a beacon for other regional projects to see how interlocking pieces can come together to build capacity in the community,” Crutchfield says.
Shalom was founded 30 years ago as a volunteer organization “dedicated to the practice of Christian love,” says its website, particularly with the physically challenged. When the 2011 triple disaster struck, the organization responded to survivors with food and supplies. Since then, it has expanded its activities.
In one of its projects, Shalom supports Fukushima residents affected by the nuclear disaster, especially those with physical challenges, through the production and sale of sunflower oil. The organization plans to send sunflower seeds to willing growers outside of Fukushima and hopes to receive back from them between five and ten tons of seeds grown in non-contaminated areas. These will allow the group to produce 1,250 to 2,500 liters of oil and oil products for sale.
Many of the growers belong to facilities for vulnerable populations (hospitals, nursing homes, disabled, and others.), and these folks also benefit from the therapeutic effects of growing flowers while helping others. In an interesting twist, sunflowers actually have the power to remove radioactive toxins from the earth.
Another project funded by UMCOR in Fukushima is a children's convalescent program. Again according to UMCOR's Crutchfield, "This initiative is a way to remove children from the radiation zone for several weeks to a month, thus providing their young and incredibly resilient bodies with clean air, fresh water, and healthy earth where they can run and play. Amazingly, their bodies can detoxify in that short time, thus minimizing the long-term negative effects."
UMCOR is foregrounding safety for vulnerable populations in the Fukushima area by supporting work like that of Shalom’s sunflower oil and children’s convalescent programs. It is not surprising that sunflowers have begun to be planted all over Japan as a symbol of resilience, beauty, and continued growth.
Like the sunflower, Tomomi, too, shows her tenacious nature, training four times a week under nationally renowned coach Kazuhisa Kawamoto at Fukushima University. She is preparing hard for the next Special Olympics, in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. Let's cheer her on.
Your support for International Disaster Responses, UMCOR Advance #982450 , helps communities like those of Fukushima recover from catastrophic events and disasters.
*Wickham Boyle is a writer and frequent contributor to umcor.org.