Building a playground in Minamisanriku

By Ron Choi

Figure 1. The completed playground in Minamisanriku, Ishinomaki.

On 28th of September, 2013, J.P.Morgan volunteers, in partnership with the members of Playground of Hope (PoH), It’s Not Just Mud (INJM) and NADIA, built a beautiful playground in Minamisanriku, Miyagi prefecture, Japan. Minamisanriku was devastated by the tsunami of March 2011. The volunteers saw the effects of that disaster in one of the areas of the city that was completely washed away. They stopped by the Crisis Management Building where Miki Endo, one of the municipal employees who stayed the building until the last minute to alert the residents to evacuate. It is said she saved hundreds of lives. The steel frame of the three-story building where she perished was still standing. The volunteers paid homage before departing to the job site.

Figure 2. This is why we do it.

This was the second of the playground builds by J.P. Morgan. In terms of scale, it was a much smaller operation compared to the first one in Watanoha area in Ishinomaki, where an entire park was renovated. In the Watanoha build, we had 30 volunteers from J.P. Morgan and over a dozen other volunteers from partner NPOs. In this trip we had 11 volunteers from J.P. Morgan and about a half a dozen people from partner NPOs. However it lacked in size of the operation, it certainly made up for it in the level of enthusiasm by the surrounding communities.

Figure 3. This is why we do it.

600 flyers announcing the playground build activities accompanied by BBQ were distributed in the temporary housing compounds in the surrounding area. About 180 people showed up to celebrate the opening. The venue, an expansive area next to a main road fully covered with grass, most definitely helped the volunteers to interact with the local residents. A very large number of children from the temporary housing compounds — the most ever in any of the playground builds so far — whole-heartedly embraced the volunteers. The children played tag for hours with the volunteers, chased down giant soap bubbles, and after the BBQ started lining up behind the roped boundary around the play set that was completed only a few minutes before the ceremony. There was a large commotion emanating from the kids who have been suffering from play deficit. We made our opening speech very short, so the kids can go at the playground. And go at it, they did. We counted up to 50 kids playing on the play set at one point in time. It was the most children we’ve seen on a play set ever. Given that this was 18th Playground of Hope to be built in Tohoku area that is saying something. Upon seeing this, some of the volunteers were overcome with emotions. This was something our volunteers rarely experienced in their lives – their hard work over a weekend making a difference to those who need it the most. The children in temporary housing area really need to play. Their living condition in cramped overcrowded rooms and no access to safe place to interact with other kids induce a great deal of stress in their young lives. This was something they have been longing for more than two years since the tsunami. Now they have a place to gather and play with their old and new friends safely, all thanks to our wonderful volunteers.

Figure 4. A BBQ was held before the opening ceremony.

After the BBQ and opening ceremony were over, all of us played with the children and had some time to reflect upon that weekend’s activity. By all measure it was a fabulously successful project. But more than anything we came away realizing how much impact this playground will have on the children. This place will provide countless moments of joy to the children in the neighborhood. They will grow up having memories of happy times they have had at the playground. We hope that it will help them overcome the hardship and stress they have to face each day. We hope they will grow up to be constructive and positive individuals.

Figure 5. Our volunteers preparing food for the large contingent of kids and family from temporary housing in the surrounding area.

After all the planned activities were over, the volunteers cleared out the area of tools and materials. As our bus started driving out of the parking lot, we noticed many of the residents and children walking toward us and waving good bye. They were showing their gratitude. It was a very touching moment for all who worked on the project. To all the volunteers who willingly gave their time and efforts on this project, we sincerely thank you.

Figure 6. Michael Anop and Jamie El-Bana, of It’s Not Just Mud, putting on the roof with the volunteers.

Figure 7. Our new lovely playground waiting for kids to arrive.

Figure 8. We had hundreds of hamburger patties and sausages. Children especially liked the chocolate fondue.

Figure 9. Having a large area covered with grass provided us ample opportunities for volunteers to interact with the children. They played tag with the kids for hours!

Figure 10. We sincerely thank our volunteers for their hard work in building the playground.