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.

Playground of Hope Report

June 28 – 30, 2013 │ Miyagi
Organised by NPO NADIA together with Playground of Hope (PoH), which works with communities to site and build playgrounds to recover the region’s deep sense of community, and It’s Not Just Mud (INJM), another Tohoku based volunteer organization, Deutsche Bank Group (DBG) employees constructed a playground at a newly established pre-school in Ishinomaki-city, while repairing and sprucing-up three others in parks and pre-schools across the town.

The coastal town was one of those in Japan’s north-east most heavily damaged by the tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011. The playgrounds finally replace play areas lost in the disaster and, as they bring children together, help parents and neighbours to recover their sense of community.

Thirty-two DBG employees from Japan and across Asia united for the a joint volunteer project to build and refresh playgrounds in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture between June 28-30. The volunteers from DBG, NADIA, PoH and INJM worked in teams of 4-5, taking turns on various aspects of the playground’s construction, from preparing components, to assembling the structure and preparing the grounds as safe play areas. Each team also helped improve at least one of the three other playgrounds previously installed by PoH to ensure their longer-term usability, and ensure they remain well maintained and attractive to children, their parents and neighbours.

With the completion of the main site on June 30, the volunteers then hosted children and neighbours to a mini-festival to celebrate the area’s reconstruction and handover the playground to its host community. As children raced to be the first on the playset, the school’s founder explained to all how much the playground meant to the community, telling them, “We have come a long way in the last two years and overcome much. This playset helps ensure our children only see a bright future ahead of them.”

DBG has been a direct supporter of NADIA since April 2011 and many of its employees have participated on multiple volunteering trips. The June 28-30 playground project trip marked the first collaboration project between NADIA, PoH and INJM in Tohoku. Thanks to the signification donation from Deutsche Bank Group and its employees, NADIA, PoH and INJM were not only able to build this new playground in Ishinomaki but also established 2 new playground facilities in Shinchi, Fukushima Prefecture on July 6 and 7.

Building a playground in Ishinomaki

 By Ron Choi

 Figure 1. The completed playground in Watanoha, Ishinomaki.

On 25th of August, 2013, something magical happened in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, Japan.  Children’s laughter echoed through out the park which only short time ago was a decrepit half a century-old premise overrun with weeds.   There were many nearby residents soaking in the festive mood that has completely taken over the neighborhood.   These grownups and elderly from kasetsu jyutaku (temporary housing compounds) joined an army volunteers to celebrate the re-opening of their only park.   This was Watanoha, Ishinomaki, one of the most devastated towns in all of Japan during the unprecedented calamity of Great East Japan Earthquake.  The city of Ishinomaki had lost more than 3000 residents to the tsunami.  Of 150,000 residents nearly a third of them reside in 147 still-operating temporary housing compounds even after two and a half years.   But there they were, clapping their hands and cheering the volunteers from J.P. Morgan and its NPO partners from NADIA, Playground of Hope (PoH),  and It’s Not Just Mud (INJM).

 Figure 2. This is why we do it.

 It all started with a chance meeting at another temporary housing compound in nearby town of Minamisakai, Ishinomaki in November of 2012.   There I met Michael Anop from Playground of Hope.    He started building these playgrounds in April, 2012, about a year after the tsunami.   Michael had not done a volunteer work in his life, but the images of devastation from the tsunami in Tohoku (Northeast) area really moved him.  He packed up and drove up north to help the region start recovering from the disaster.  He continued to go up week after week to various towns in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures.   After a while he started noticing a critical need that was not at all being addressed.   The temporary housing units were built on city properties in a desperate attempt to provide the absolutely minimum living space for those in the shelters.  This invariably meant that these units were built on each city’s parks.  Since all park premises were taken up by these temporary residences, the children living the in these units had nowhere to play.   He saw kids playing with wooden sticks in parking lots.    He had an epiphany.   He needs to build playgrounds for these kids.

Figure 3.  This is why we do it.

 The playground in Minamisakai temporary housing compound, the largest of many in Ishinomaki, was paid for by the donation money raised by Tokyo International School moms.   My wife was one of the moms.   Our entire family of five went up to Ishinomaki to attend the opening ceremony.   It was magical.   The kids went bonkers.   They finally had a place they can climb, slide down, and hang on to safely.   The play deficit these kids experienced for nearly two years left them maladjusted and unhappy.  Now they had a proper place to play.  And play they did.   I told Michael, “This is absolutely amazing.  I’d like to help.  We need to chat.” 

Figure 4.  A group photo of  the J.P. Morgan volunteers on top of the hills of Kadonowakicho, Ishinomaki.

 J.P. Morgan made a significant  amount of donations to build playgrounds in Tohoku region.   It was the largest donation NADIA ever received.  At the same time, the city of Ishinomaki asked for an entire park next to temporary housing compounds in Watanoha area to be renovated.   Up until then, most of the playgrounds were built on nursery and preschools or on the premise of temporary housing compounds.   Building a play set is one thing, rebuilding an entire park is a challenge of completely different scale.   It was the largest project ever for the three NPOs involved.  We decided to take it on.  NADIA will partner with J.P. Morgan, PoH,  and INJM to bring the project to fruition.

Figure 5. Michael Anop of Playground of Hope and his long-time partner, Neil Rosenblatt, giving instructions to our volunteers.

27 J.P. Morgan volunteers from Tokyo office joined four core members from NADIA on a six-hour bus ride to Ishinomaki on Friday evening, 23rd of August.   There, they were joined by PoH and INJM members on site.   PoH staff started planning three months in advance.   Contractors were signed to put in a gazebo and prepare the grounds for the build.   A new water fountain was put in.  By the time the volunteers showed up at the park, only one weekend’s worth of work was left.   Michael and his long time partner, Neil Rosenblatt, ran the weekend operation like army generals.   The entire operation was divided into 60 clearly explained tasks. The teamwork and spirit exhibited during that weekend’s operation were impressive.   They nearly finished a weekend’s worth of work on the first day.   A play set was built, sandpit was cleaned out, rusted metal fences around the park were sanded down and freshly painted.   Flowers were planted.   Woodchips were laid down around the playground to prevent injury.  

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

The residents of the temporary housing compound were quite excited at the news of park renovation.   They passed around hats to gather whatever they could to throw a BBQ party in celebration of the park re-opening.   These folks started showing up early morning on Sunday well before the ceremony was to be held.   The kids waited anxiously for the opening ceremony to be finished.   We had indoor children’s activities – origami, chocolate fondue-making, etc. in the community center next to the park.  We made giant soap bubbles with the children. There were smiles all around. People started walking up from the streets to thank us.   A grandmother showed up with a small child whose parents perished in the tsunami to thank one of the volunteers for the playground.   She said she’s too senile to even carry the child, but now she has a place for her to bring the child for quality playtime.   That brought the volunteers to tears.  Another elderly lady walked up to tell another volunteer how grateful she was to see something like this.   She said the playground was amazing.  She had no idea the volunteer did not speak Japanese.  One of the Japanese volunteers informed her she was talking to a person who doesn’t understand her language.   She said it doesn’t matter.  She spoke to him heart to heart.

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

After obligatory opening speech, kids ran to the playground and did what children do at a playground.   There were giggles, laughter, screams and bright smiles.  These children will have a happy memory to cherish when they grow up.  We have made a difference.  It was magical.

Figure 8.  We had 1000 yakitori skewers, 150 hamburger patties, and 600 sausages.   Good thing because hundreds of people showed up for the festivities.

We will be building many more of these playgrounds in the Tohoku area.  We may be able hit the target of building the 20th Playground of Hope that Michael Anop set as a target for 2013.  J.P. Morgan volunteers will be making another playground build trip in September 2013 to Minamisanriku in Miyagi prefecture.  There will be many more after.  Michael has an ambitious plan to build 40 more in 2014.

Figure 9.  Many children presented us with their drawings.  Here she drew the playground we built and wrote a caption saying, “Thank you for building us a playground.”


 Figure 10.   We sincerely thank our volunteers for their hard work in rebuilding the park.