Global event hits home

On Mar. 11, 2011, the world watched in horror as Japan was rocked by a massive earthquake followed by a crushing tsunami that left behind a mass of death, destruction and devastation. Stirred by human compassion, many people want to help during such tragedies but often don't know how – so they wait for someone to take the lead. For Mieko Okutomi, a University of Lethbridge student with family in Japan – waiting was not an option.

"When it first happened I was at home and I saw my friends on Facebook writing about Japan. I wasn't too concerned because Japan often has large earthquakes – but when I saw all the media coverage I started to realize this was different," recalls Okutomi, whose home is only 100 km away from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. "I felt really bad because at first I couldn't reach some of my family members. It took a while to find out they were OK. That was what initially prompted me to get involved in the fundraiser. I felt compelled to do something. I knew I would never be able to look at myself in the mirror if I hadn't done anything."

Mieko Okutomi (fourth-year accounting), Sayu Ishimine (fourth-year psychology), Yukino Okutomi (volunteer), Eri Asano (volunteer) and professor Eiichi Yokota and his wife Yuko Yokota.

Responding to an plea from the International Centre for Students (ICS), Okutomi, Ayuno Nakahashi, Ryosuke Imura, Sayu Ishimine and Emma Wight met with staff and came up with the idea to fundraise money to aid Japan through the Red Cross. The students created displays and brochures detailing the tragedy and set up donation boxes on campus. The fundraiser took place Mar. 16-18.

"The ICS provided the students with logistical support, organizing tables on campus, supplying presentation material and signing the contract with Red Cross so that the fundraiser could happen," says Trish Jackson, acting manager ICS. "I am just so impressed by how much enthusiasm, love and care the students brought with them and how well it was received around campus."

During the fundraiser, Okutomi became aware of an extraordinary achievement by Yuko Yokota, the wife of Dr. Eiichi Yokota, a visiting professor from Hokkai Shouka Daigaku, Hokkai School of Commerce in Japan. Mrs. Yokota had made more than 1,700 traditional paper cranes that she was willing to donate to the University. In Japan, the crane is a very important symbol of hope and peace, and legend says that if you fold 1,000 cranes you are granted a wish.

Thanks to Mrs. Yokota's incredible contribution, the ICS, along with Okutomi, began an awareness campaign with the wish that Japan not be forgotten once the media coverage diminished. Their goal was to see how many cranes they could collect and display in the University as a symbol of hope and recovery for Japan.

From Mar. 28 through Apr. 1, Okutomi, her sister Yukino, and other student volunteers manned tables in the Atrium, where everyone was welcome to learn about the legend of the crane and show their continued support for Japan by folding their own cranes and adding them to the collection.

"The crane project is very therapeutic. When you fold a crane you put your love and compassion in it and it becomes a physical symbol for you. When you add it to three or four thousand other cranes it becomes so much more," says Jackson. "You realize that you have support and there is compassion around campus. Each time a tragedy like this happens we have students who come together to find ways to help. We also saw that with the recent earthquake in Haiti."

For Okutomi, thousands of miles away from a tragedy affecting her homeland, the outpouring of support shown was heartening.

"I really have to say thank you to all the University community, our friends and the ICS," she says. "I was really moved by the compassion people showed for our cause, asking if our friends and family were OK, even when they did not know us. I am really proud of the University community for its kindness."


· More than $3,000 was raised through the fundraiser and the sale of tickets for an International Dinner hosted by the Ecumenical Campus Ministry. The Ecumenical Campus Ministry held two memorial services to support Japan.

· There are currently four U of L students on exchange programs in Japan, along with one faculty member. All have reported they are safe following the tragedy.

· ICS donated 600 sheets of origami paper as a thank you to Mrs. Yokota. She folded it all, creating more than 2,400 paper cranes for the project.

· Students are also planning on displaying the cranes at the University's Calgary campus. Anyone wishing to make additional paper cranes is welcome to bring them to the ICS (SU040).

For a look at the Legend in a flipbook format, follow this link.