Tag Archives: volunteers

Changing Times, Changing Lives

The Citizens Advice Bureau celebrated 75 years of giving assistance this September. Not bad for an agency that was originally only established as a temporary measure. This Ministry of Information film from the IWM archive shows how the CAB evolved from its wartime beginnings:

CAB is a charity for the community. Their manifesto is to provide the advice people need for the problems they face and to improve the policies and practices that affect people’s lives. Free, independent, confidential and impartial advice to everyone on their rights and responsibilities.

On 8th July 2014 a report detailed that 9 out of 10 CAB’s (92%) are finding it difficult to refer people to the specialist legal advice they need, since cuts to legal aid came into effect last year. In some cases legal aid is now not available for help with getting employers to pay outstanding wages or challenging unfair benefit decisions.

ten minutes hate caught up with Kristian Khan, Deputy Manager of Liverpool Central Citizens Advice Bureau, to discuss his work at the charity, particularly in light of the recent severe cuts to funding that are having a significant impact.

Kristian Khan
10mh: How does he find working in the busy Central office?

Challenging, rewarding, exhausting, satisfying and exhilarating.

The CAB is currently facing particular re-occurring issues such as:
• Impact of the Welfare Reform Act and the changes to welfare benefits.
• Priority and Non Priority debts – last year Liverpool Central CAB alone helped clients deal with £12.8 million worth of debt.
• Payday lending.
• Housing possessions and evictions.
• All aspects of consumer matters.
• Immigration and Asylum queries.

The CAB provides the nation with an invaluable service, as Khan details,

• We provide advice to approximately 2.1 million people nationally every year to help them solve 6.6 million problems.
• We give 22,000 people the chance to volunteer in their local communities and they provide £109 million worth of hours a year between them.
• We campaign on the big issues that are affecting our clients and last year an estimated 8.2 million people benefited positively from our policy work.
• We make people happier and healthier; forty-six per cent of people felt less anxious, less stressed, or had fewer health problems after receiving help from a CAB.
• We take the strain off other local services in many ways, for example by preventing homelessness, avoiding legal action and helping people to fill in official forms correctly
• We contribute to the local economy by helping clients to manage their debts and maximise their incomes.

The general public can help the CAB to continue its invaluable work
by donating what they can – time, money or other resources – and by raising awareness of the fact that they are a registered charity. The CAB is also seeking volunteers,

Don’t worry about your level of formal qualifications – real life experience is also essential for this work. You will get out what you put into it. Your experience here may not change your life but it will certainly give you a unique insight into people and their problems.

I asked the Deputy Manager what has been his proudest moment to date during his career?

Stepping into the role of Acting Chief Executive where I was ultimately responsible for all aspects of the bureau and ensuring that our clients’ experience of us was a positive one – 14 years of CAB experience had brought me to that point.

I wonder what the CAB will be like in another 75 years? Khan has an idea,

I think we will be a more streamlined agency with a greater number of ‘districts’ rather than individual bureau. We will be at the forefront of instant access to advice for clients through a number of channels and we will continue to campaign on the big issues that are affecting citizens.  We will still use volunteers as this is integral to all that we do.

To mark the anniversary, the CAB have released a film called ‘Changing Lives’, showing more of their work:

 

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Look Mam, I’m in the Asahi!

Here I am in the newspaper and for a good reason! Not like knocking off a bank or anything…

I was lucky enough to meet up with Asahi Shimbun journalist Sophie Knight last time I was in Miyagi. It was fascinating to watch her work, interviewing various people involved in the projects the volunteers were assisting with, so I was keen to see the finished article.

This profile of some of the key people involved in It’s Not Just Mud (INJM) and International Disaster Relief Organization Japan (IDRO) is both interesting and illuminating. I think it has perfectly captured the motivations of the long-term volunteers in the North of Japan – not to go for sainthood or earn points – but to become part of the communities they are assisting. To work with the people affected by the disaster to restore their homes, jobs and lives in ways that are best for them.

It is an excellent read, one I can’t recommend highly enough. If you feel suitably inspired, be sure to join IDRO or INJM on a future project!

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Ishinomaki – Then and Now

Recently arrived back in Tokyo from another trip North and still attempting to unravel my answers to the natural question of ‘how was it?’  Perhaps this will help.  The following is a documentary from Paul Johannessen, which interviews tsunami survivors about their lives, as well as featuring footage of Ishinomaki taken in April and November 2011.

The film is as moving as you would expect, but it is also a really accurate reflection of life in the ruined areas now that priorities are moving from short-term to long-term survival.  Big questions about the future – some connected to issues which existed before 11 March – can no longer be avoided.  Key amongst them is: where will the jobs come from?  With high unemployment causing despair and an increase in suicides, it is as critical to rebuild the economy of Tohoku as it is to repair homes and roads.

Perhaps that can happen little by little, as with the physical rebuilding, or perhaps it requires a bigger effort towards a grander vision, one which it won’t shock seasoned watchers of the Japanese government to learn does not appear to be coming from Tokyo.  Instead, groups like TEDxTohoku and Ishinomaki 2.0 are trying to bring people together to shape what needs to happen next for places like Ishinomaki to get past clinging on and start thriving again.

It won’t be an easy task, but if – as noted in the video – more people are inspired to begin ‘shaping our own place to live’, then it should not take too long for hope to return to the devastated areas of North East Japan.

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Ishinomaki, December 2011

There is too much to tell you and not enough words.

Everyone who was here on 11 March must have a story to make the hair stand on end, about where they were and what they saw, who they lost and where they found the strength to continue.  Every empty plot of land, ruined shop and smashed car has its own story, of the people who lived or worked there, the journeys they took together and their hopes and fears for the future that never came, washed away on a tide of mud and debris that overwhelmed manmade defences too easily.  The lines on the buildings tell their own tale of how high the waters rose.

I wasn’t even sure I should go.  I’m not strong, not good at digging, not a builder or a carpenter and worried I would get in the way of those that are.  My Japanese is so lacking that I can’t even read enough to book the bus tickets.  More than once I convinced myself I should leave it to others.  Then I read the Frequently Used Excuses page on the It’s Not Just Mud website, send some emails and almost before I know how, am getting off a bus into the crisp, cold air of the most gorgeous morning I have seen since I arrived in Japan. Taking a deep breath because here I am in Ishinomaki, the city we have all seen countless times on the news, yet everything looks – well, kind of ok.

Parts of the city are relatively and reassuringly normal.  The pachinko parlour, konbinis and petrol station are open, while the streets are full of gleaming new cars.  I come from another northern port, so when I see a broken window high on a warehouse, I don’t automatically think of quake damage.  I know the wear and tear is harder here than in the pampered capital.  As you would expect, the busy streets around the central station have been repaired first, so the first-time visitor is spared an immediate surprise.  That’s reserved for the drive out to INJM’s HQ, located in the suburb of Watanoha, where the scale of the destruction begins to make itself known with every empty tract of land.  The really dramatic damage you remember from the press –boats left in the middle of the street and broken timber strewn storeys high – has largely been cleared.  What is left is somehow worse, houses standing alone where once they would have brushed up against their neighbours, and plenty of new car parks.

But there isn’t much time to dwell on such thoughts.  The INJM day starts with the more experienced hands welcoming that day’s arrivals over breakfast.  British volunteers will be happy to note there is a plentiful supply of Yorkshire Tea and no shortage of toast and jam either.  Suitably refreshed and following a quick update on the work schedule, it is time to begin the sometimes mammoth task of getting people and equipment into one of the pool of cars the group has commandeered.   INJM works with other organisations such as Samaritan’s Purse, and has a variety of projects on at any one time, so it is only possible to give a general idea of what you will be doing if you join them.   While I was there, volunteers were cleaning a damaged community centre ready for a forthcoming concert, removing mud from documents and photographs belonging to local people and ripping out damaged parts of houses ready for rebuilding.

Cleaning mud from documents and photographs is perhaps the perfect job for a writer.  I found myself alternatively marvelling that they were intact and speculating whether a computer’s hard drive would have survived so well.  It was also impossible not to wonder what had become of all the celebrating people in the photographs, enjoying sports days and cultural events.  Or while working through a file of financial records, to keep from thinking about where the hand which had idly scribbled notes across a page was now.  In the ‘to be cleaned’ pile was a schoolbag, identical to the one that all my young students have, still with mud-encrusted toy attached to the zip.  I found myself hoping that its owner was somewhere missing it, in spite of knowing that the death toll from schools in the city must make that impossible.

There are two Japanese words quoted in Jake Adelstein’s book, Tokyo Vice: setsunai and yarusenai, which are translated as ‘a physical feeling of sadness’ and ‘a sadness that you can’t clear away’ respectively.  When working in a city which is still a disaster zone, feelings like these are never very far from you, however, I believe the most practical way to deal with them is to get on with helping the survivors.  Each person does as much as they can and tasks tend to get assigned via a process of ‘can you do…’  ‘Yes, fine!’  ‘OK then, do it!’  It works well.  Breaks crop up exactly when you feel most in need of them, teas and coffees are produced, a bag of Kit Kats handed around and there is time for a chat before getting back to it.  In a Tohoku winter, there is a lot of incentive to throw yourself into work until your muscles hum and you don’t notice the cold or that the clock has ticked around to midday.  The lunches at INJM were some of the best I’ve eaten in Japan, which should give you a measure of exactly how good they were.  Warm, nourishing and served up with good humour by Hashimoto san, whose house has become an unofficial second home to the city’s volunteers.  Her kotatsu heated table was also a joy to the toes.

Donating your time and energy to help Ishinomaki via INJM in no way means living a Spartan existence.  After the afternoon’s work, brought to an end around the time the light starts to fade, everyone heads towards the onsen.  There is running water at the INJM house, but the queues and rage that would no doubt ensue from 20 people trying to get a shower mean that it’s much easier and far more pleasant to use the public baths for a scrub and a soak.  The evening draws to a close with more eating and chatting, maybe a couple of drinks to soothe us off to sleep, without causing too much of a headache in the morning!  Then the only job that remains is to find a space to set up your own array of futons, blankets and quilts – saying a quick prayer to make sure you don’t snore please – before the lights go out ready for another early start on the following day.

If you are wavering about going, don’t.  Yes, if you are strong, speak good Japanese, can drive or dig, or have any experience of building, you should definitely go!  But even if not, go anyway.  You are needed, people will be happy to see you and you will leave feeling that you have done something, even if it is only a fraction of what needs to be done.  By everyone who can taking on a little part of it, what could appear to be an overwhelming task becomes that much easier.  A lot has already been done, but there is more still to take care of.  Maybe it will happen without you, but maybe it will take even longer.

And if you need any further incentive, did I mention how good the food was?

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Christmas in Tohoku Part 2

We got talking at the Free Tohoku and It’s Not Just Mud Christmas party, despite not sharing much language, our ‘conversation’ drifting over the head of her small boy, who wriggled in her arms in that way that children do the world over when they decide that Mum has been talking long enough.  He was too shy to look my way at first, burying his face in her shoulder as we tried to get him to wave ‘hello’ or ‘konnichiwa’.  We chuckled over his antics until eventually he looked to see what was happening and we were rewarded with a big smile.

I asked his age and she said he was only four months old, so she would have been pregnant during March.  I thought back to that time, things like how difficult it was to sleep, the huge number of aftershocks, constantly watching the news coming from Fukushima and how the strain affected everyone.  How much harder it must have been in the North, where shocks were stronger and more frequent, family members disappeared or dead and the buildings more damaged.  Then having to face that while pregnant.  I couldn’t believe how strong she was.

Surrounded by the children enjoying the party, running around, chasing each other, jumping like crazy on the bouncy castle, it was great to be able to give them this chance to be kids again.  Imagining the loss and fear that they must have experienced, coupled with seeing their parents – the ones to run to when something scary happens – also looking afraid.  Having to be strong for each other in the face of so much uncertainty and loss must take its toll and I hope the party was able to provide a brief comfort.

After the event finished we had another visit to make.  Our bus headed to Okawa Elementary School, the scene of incredibly tragic events on 11 March.  As the Asahi Shimbun reported:

Of the 108 students at the elementary school, 64 were found dead and 10 were still missing as of April 9. That means that about 70 percent of the students became victims of the tsunami.

(Elementary school in Japan runs from the age of six until 12, when students graduate to junior high.)

By a cruel twist of fate, because of the school’s location at the edge of the city and disrupted communications, rumours had spread that everyone at Okawa school had been saved.  Parents spent an anxious night wondering if their children were scared or cold, before learning that few had survived.  There were reports of a line of children and teachers walking towards the nearby river, because the hill at the back of the school was too steep to climb, when they were engulfed by the tsunami.  The waves had risen above the roof of the school, a two-storey building.

As we arrived there on Christmas Eve, I saw that the school buildings were in a terrible state.  No glass remained and it was possible to look right through the ruins.  The area around the school has been cleared and lorries hurtled past, one after the other, carrying debris from further along the road.  The paper decorations on a Christmas tree standing in the school’s entrance hall fluttered in the biting cold wind and the evening began to draw in.

Waiting to meet members of our group were some of the bereaved mothers of pupils at the Okawa school.  It didn’t feel appropriate to take pictures, but this from Wikipedia shows what remains:

Close to the entrance to the school there is a shrine, with a statue of a mother and child, created by local sculptor Shozo Hamada:

At the unveiling of the statue, he spoke of his hope that it would help the survivors achieve peace of mind.  I hope so too, however difficult that is while the bereaved parents still have questions about what happened immediately after the earthquake on 11 March and wonder if events could have been turned out differently.

If the tsunami came one hour later, if I went to pick them up by car, if the earthquake had hit on Sunday… they wouldn’t have lost their lives, I cannot regret enough.

- Sueko Saito, mother of Miku and Takumi

Survivors across Tohoku will be dealing with such mental anguish for many years to come, long after the rebuilding draws to a close.  It is perhaps a cliché, but sharing Christmas with them, though so far away from my own loved ones, showed me how much I have to be thankful for.  No one who was in Japan during March 2011 will ever forget these events, now it is for us to make sure that those directly affected aren’t forgotten as they attempt to rebuild their cities, homes and lives.

If you are in Japan, there are many excellent organisations to get involved with, from It’s Not Just Mud to Free Tohoku and Smile Kids Japan.  If you are in another country – why not visit and volunteer? – or make a donation!

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Christmas in Tohoku Part 1

Before I came to Japan, I wondered what Christmas would be like.  It is not a Christian country and New Year is a much more important festival in the Japanese calendar.  So I wasn’t expecting to see many Christmas trees.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The shopping centres and public areas around Tokyo have their decorations up even earlier than many do in the UK and – kids being kids – everyone is excited about Santa’s arrival, presents and cake.  In school we play games, make Christmas decorations and sing songs, much the same as you do.  In one class, a student got the words to ‘Jingle Bells’ slightly muddled and all his classmates jumped in to tell him the right ones.  You’ve got to get it right for Santa!

Despite – or perhaps because of – everything they have been through, the small people of Ishinomaki are no strangers to the Christmas anticipation.  I could imagine kids in temporary housing asking their mums if Santa would be able to find them, just as my brother and I did after our family moved house late one year.  The charity Free Tohoku was determined to give them a reason to smile this Christmas and so ‘let them eat cake!’ was born.

The idea was to give each family some treats – Christmas cake and cookies – as well as shopping tokens for other things they needed.  Thanks to the generosity of so many, fundraising efforts were a great success.  23 December saw an assortment of friends, colleagues and Twitter acquaintances meet on a cold winter’s night at a remote station in Chiba (about 20 miles from central Tokyo).  We loaded a brightly painted rainbow bus with all the essentials, including but not limited to: helium for balloons; a Santa costume; a hot water heater and – of course! – a Christmas tree.  There was so much stuff I wasn’t sure there would be room for all of us, but somehow everything squeezed in and then our journey could start.

(For the fact fans, it is around 250 miles)

This was my first trip so far to the north of Japan and I would love to tell you all about everything we passed.  But it was after midnight and motorways being more or less the same the world over, there wasn’t much scenery to speak of.  Instead, it was time to try to snatch some shut-eye.  We had lots of kids to entertain soon!

We woke to a gorgeous morning breaking over a much more snowy and hilly landscape than the one we had left behind.  As always when I am awake at the crack of dawn, I was surprised to see how many other cars and trucks were on the road, the days in Japan start early!  We had a quick wash and brush up in the service station toilets before heading into the centre of Ishinomaki, via a slightly circuitous route to the primary school hall, where we met the volunteers of It’s Not Just Mud to get everything unloaded and ready for Santa’s visit.  It seemed like there was so much to do – however would we finish in time?

Many hands made light work of it all and soon the helium balloons and the cafe were up and running:

The bouncy castle was waiting for the crowds:

The Christmas tree was beautifully decorated:

And we had hung up the handmade or decorated Christmas cards sent to Ishinomaki by children in Ireland, Japan and the UK:

I had thought this way of hanging up cards was quite usual but it seems to just be a British thing as many visitors and volunteers asked about it… maybe this will start a trend next year!  Much nicer than putting them away and they helped to cheer up the chilly school hall.

Then suddenly everything was ready, the doors opened and the kids arrived.  The first part of the day flashed by in a blur, but there were huge queues for the bouncy castle and trampolines, as well as a craft area to make decorations, while the parents stopped for a chat and a coffee.  We also had a visit from a clown who made balloon animals and swords, which came in very handy for clobbering friends:

Delicious onigiri was served for lunch and then came the moment everyone had been waiting for…

Excitement was running very high as the kids got their gifts and treats and it was lovely to hear the hall ring with their shrieks and laughter.  We sang Christmas songs, while some made beautiful thank you notes and pictures:

You can see some of the results by clicking on the link in this tweet:

All too soon it was time to load up the bus and head back to the city, feeling  exhausted but happy – as I hope all the partygoers did.  To those who donated either cash or time, a huge thank you!  To the wonderful team of Our Man and Our Woman in Abiko – who asked if I would like to come along – thank you so much, it was a pleasure!  And to all the It’s Not Just Mud team, thanks for everything, I’ll be back before long.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Before leaving Miyagi, the Free Tohoku bus made another stop.  Christmas in Tohoku Part 2 is here.

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Obon festivities

Often in class I find I am learning as much as the students.  While they pick up the essentials of English grammar and usage, along with certain vignettes about British life, I am gaining too.  Not merely an insight into Japan and its culture but also an alternative perspective on what it is to be human spinning around on this big rock we call home.  Aside from all the surface differences, I am realising that people are people, with more in common than not.

This week I was given an insight into the Obon holiday.  If I had thought about it at all it was as a nice long break in the middle of Japan’s hottest season, a chance to head home, cool my blood down a few degrees and catch up with much-missed friends and family.  To sleep in my old bed under my mother’s roof again, stuff myself with sausages, roast potatoes and maybe a few Jaffa Cakes, luxuriate in the first two-week holiday since the Christmas break and tell my tales over pub tables, was my plan.

A lot of people think that Oban is just an excuse for a holiday, a chance to go overseas.  They are forgetting what it means

I was told.  And I thought, how comforting.  I am sure a lot of regular church attenders would say the same about Christmas and how it has become an excuse for too much food, bad TV and winter sun.  Every year the same predictable whines from certain quarters about people losing their connection to the true spirit of the season in favour of a rampant bout of consumerism.  Remember your grandparents being happy with a tangerine and a handful of sweets for their present and feel suitably chagrined.

So, to make up for my ignorance, here is what I learnt about the real meaning of Obon.  It is a three-day holiday when ancestors who have departed return to earth from heaven for a visit.  Families gather, food is prepared and tombs are attended to.  Stories are told about the ones who have gone.  On the last day, before the ancestors must leave for heaven again, there are parties and parades, with fireworks and fires to light their way back.  It sounded lovely and again I felt comforted that, perhaps instinctively, I had stumbled into doing the right thing by deciding to visit my ancestral home during the holiday.

Then I learned something else.  If the relative has died within the last year, pictures of Japan’s scenery are prepared for them, alongside the food.  Japanese people love nature, adore their nation’s mountains and forests, and the feeling is that maybe the ancestors – although they have been in heaven – will be missing what they had to leave behind.  So they get pictures instead, to remind them of what they used to experience when they were living.

The picture an ancestor of Kyoto would wish to see?

And then I thought of all the people who have left Japan this year, many of whom will be forever without a tomb.  Those living in evacuation centres who may wonder if their ancestors will find them now that the family home has been destroyed.  The bereaved for whom giving their relatives’ spirits a happy send off at the end of the holiday might be too much to ask, their pain too raw so soon after the shock of the initial departure.  I wondered if this year’s Obon will be a comfort to them or not.

Then I heard about an appeal that went out across Japan this week (site in Japanese) for donations of black clothing so that people could be suitably attired for a remembrance event.  I could only find news reports in Japanese, but found this English translation here):

Our team have visited tohoku areas and talked with local people who have told us that they urgently need these clothes as there is a ceremony on 18th June 100days after the disaster 震災100日め慰霊祭 and we would like to deliver as many items as possible by that date

I realised that for many, the formalities of mourning, the familiar rites and prayers being performed as close to ‘normally’ as the circumstances can allow for, will provide comfort.  They meet a psychological need as important as the more immediate and sometimes more easily addressed physical ones now facing the people of Tohoku.  I imagine that it would be tempting to tone down the festivities this year out of respect but I hope that they can be allowed to run to their fullest course.  I also hope that they can provide relief to those who need it most.

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