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Video: U.S. volunteers bring relief to Japan

  1. Closed captioning of: U.S. volunteers bring relief to Japan

    >> those are skiers on july 4th , and while a lot of americans were enjoying the more typical fare, parades, barbecues and fireworks on this holiday monday, the people you're about to see spend it in quite a different way. it's been four months now since a devastating 9.0 quake and tsunami hit the coast of northeast ju9 leaving 23,000 people dead or missing. as nbc's ian williams reports from the disaster zone, young american volunteers are making a difference in the cleanup and bringing some measure of relief to traumatized survivors.

    >> let me see that.

    >> reporter: it was an unexpected place to find a fourth of july party, but this celebration was also designed to lift the spirits of survivors in japan 's tsunami disaster zone. it's been four months since the torrent of water battered this coast, and young americans are at the heart of a remarkable volunteer effort bringing aid and comfort to devastated communities.

    >> i just feel like i have to do this. not just because it's japan , either. i think it's just what human being should do.

    >> reporter: it's a long way from the classroom for paul who organized a group of americans teaching english in northern japan for whom a weekend's volunteer work takes them from cleaning drains to handing out fresh fruit to mostly elderly survivors. many still have only limited access to basic supplies.

    >> translator: everybody is really happy. we haven't had fruit and vegetables in a long while.

    >> reporter: the idea here isn't just to provide aid but to enable people to come together to meet, to talk, to re-create a sense of community stolen from them by the tsunami.

    >> where are you right now?

    >> reporter: for katherine chu, the next stop is a damaged children's home. she's inspired by the memory of her close friend, taylor anderson, one of two americans , both teachers, who died in the tsunami.

    >> taylor loved kids, and part of this -- us being here is for her. the smiles, the thank yous, the little things that make you feel so good.

    >> reporter: she delivered gifts on behalf of anderson's father who has been a generous supporter of the volunteers. even the u.s. ambassador has gotten involved joining a group who have traveled to japan with a charity all hands.

    >> i'm proud. i'm really proud of what the volunteers are doing here. it's pretty amazing.

    >> reporter: it's also creating strong bonds, a warmth and enthusiasm only tempered by the knowledge this fourth of july that there's still so much more to be done. ian williams , nbc news in northeast japan .

By
NBC News correspondent
updated 7/6/2011 12:44:44 AM ET 2011-07-06T04:44:44

They fired up the grill early, the beer was suitably chilled, and the sun was shining. A perfect combination for a Fourth of July party. Except this was in Japan's tsunami disaster zone, hosted by American volunteers in a yard outside a social welfare center they call home, and where they sleep on mats on the floor.

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They spent much of the day working amid the rubble before returning for an Independence Day celebration that was also designed to lift the spirits of the local community.

Among the first guests were a couple whose house had been cleared of debris by the volunteers. They warmly greeted Rachel Garcia, a volunteer from San Diego, who'd worked on their rubble-strewn house, and for whom this warmth and gratitude made it all worthwhile.

"I feel very rewarded by the work I'm doing," she told me. "I wish I could stay months longer and continue to help."

Image: Members of the VolunteerAKITA team clear drains in Ishinomaki
Ian Williams  /  NBC News
Members of the VolunteerAKITA team clear drains in Ishinomaki, Japan over the July 4th holiday weekend.

On a lawn behind the grills, young Americans and Japanese played baseball together.

"It is tough work, but they are doing such a great job," said Marc Young, the operations director of Boston-based All Hands Volunteers, which has brought more than 300 volunteers to Japan since the tsunami, two-thirds of them Americans.

Tsunami-devastated town may flee the seaThe volunteers concentrate on tough jobs that range from clearing debris to cleaning up a stinking fish factory. They are just part of a massive volunteer efforts that's panned out across devastated coastal communities in recent weeks, with young Americans at its heart.

Image: The VolunteerAKITA team takes a break from their cleanup work in Ishinomaki
Ian Williams  /  NBC News
The VolunteerAKITA team takes a break from their cleanup work in Ishinomaki over the holiday weekend.
Young, whose volunteers have worked in disaster zones from Haiti to Alabama, says he was impressed at how welcoming Japan has been. He had feared that national pride would limit their acceptance of outside help.

That's not been the case. "They've made us very welcome," Young said.

The volunteers have been working closely with local authorities, who identify where help is needed most.

But, he said, it was Americans living in Japan who led the way establishing volunteer efforts. Foremost among them have been teachers like Paul Yoo, from Colorado. He is a co-founder of volunteerAKITA, named after the city where he has taught English for the past two years. With friends, he set up a website to raise funds and concentrated on supplying fruit to evacuation centers, with Yoo organizing fellow teachers for weekend trips to the disaster zone. They called it the Fruit Tree Project.

'I just had to do this'
Last weekend we joined the group as they distributed fruit to more than twenty shelters and then moved on to clearing thick sludge from blocked drains on behalf of local authorities in the battered town of Ishinomaki.

"Somebody's got to do it," he joked.

After tsunami, elderly couple rebuilds a 'small life'"I just had to do this," he told me. "Not just because it's Japan. It's just what any human being should do."

Remembering Americans who died in tragedy
The two Americans who died in the tsunami, Taylor Anderson and Monty Dickson, were both teaching English in Japan, and their memory has motivated many of the volunteers.

"Taylor loved kids, and part of our being here is for her," said Katherine Sheu, a teacher and good friend of Anderson, whom we followed to a quake-damaged children's home.

She was delivering gifts — candy, books and bracelets — on behalf of Anderson's father, who has been a generous supporter of the volunteers, including volunteerAKITA.

Another teacher with that group, Ryan Bailey from Maryland, had a simple explanation for his volunteering: "I've got hands. Instead of just watching it on the news, I wanted to build a connection to the place. I got hands."

Teachers in Japan under the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program are a major force in the voluntary effort and are taking advantage of the opportunity to give back to the communities in which they work, and where they have been made so welcome.

"I love Japan, and seeing people lose everything, you just have to help," says Yoo.

More survivors are now moving out of shelters and into temporary homes, but in many cases this is actually increasing hardship since they no longer receive many of the basic supplies they were given at the shelter.

"We cannot forget these people. Its a real situation still, four months on," Yoo said as he wielded a spade full of dark sludge from another blocked drain.

Through the filthy drains and rotten fish, the volunteers agreed that it was gratitude to the Japanese that kept them going. "Seeing people smile, its so wonderful," said Margaret Kocher, also with VolunteerAKITA. "Making people happy is wonderful."

Links to the charities listed in this story:
All Hands
VolunteerAKITA

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

Photos: Japan: Tsunami clean-up

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  1. In a series of photos, parts of Japan hit by the earthquake and tsunami are shown shortly after the disaster, then after nearly three months of cleanup efforts. In this combo, in the first picture, taken March 11, 2011, tsunami waves surge over a residential area in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan. Then on June 3, 2011, power shovels are at work on reconstruction in the same area. On Saturday, June 11, 2011, Japan marks three months since the earthquake and tsunami. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. March 13, 2011: Destroyed houses and debris fill a parking lot of a shopping center in Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture, northeastern Japan, two days after the disaster.
    June 3, 2011: Houses and debris are cleared. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. March 14, 2011: Tsunami survivors walk with plastic containers and kettles to carry drinking water through a street blocked by a fallen tank and other debris in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan
    June 3, 2011: Only one damaged house, center, stands along the same street. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. April 6, 2011: A sightseeing boat sits on a building in Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture, northeastern Japan.
    June 3, 2011: The same area with the boat gone. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. March 19, 2011: Vehicles park on the ground of a junior high school serving a refugee center in Rikuzentakata, Iwata prefecture, northeastern Japan.
    June 3, 2011: The same area with temporary houses set up for survivors. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. March 13, 2011: A group of firefighters head for a rescue operation in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan.
    June 6, 2011: A truck goes by the same road lined with electric poles. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. March 16, 2011: Buildings are surrounded by debris in Onagawa, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan.
    June 3, 2011: The debris is almost cleared. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. March 12, 2011: A ship swept away by tsunami lies among other debris in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan.
    June 4, 2011: A man on a bicycle pedals past a pedestrian on the same road. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. March 18, 2011: Fire engines park among the debris as a search for missing people goes on in Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture, northeastern Japan.
    June 6, 2011: The debris is almost cleared. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. March 20, 2011: A damaged house stands in a flooded residential area in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: The sun shines over the same area. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. March 12, 2011: A sea coast is filled with destroyed houses and debris at Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: The same area with the houses and debris cleared. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. March 13, 2011: A burned pickup truck lies among debris swept away by tsunami in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: Marguerites are in bloom along a cleared street corner in the same area. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. March 13, 2011: Debris is piled up by damaged buildings in Ofunato, Iwate prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: Several houses have been demolished. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. March 12, 2011: Two-car trains lie in ruin after being swept away by tsunami at Shinchi station, Fukushima Prefecture, with only its railway bridge section left standing.
    June 3, 2011: A truck is parked near the bridge. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. March 24, 2011: People walk along Prefectural Highway 30 sandwiched by floodwaters in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 4, 2011: In the same area, an earth mover goes on with reconstruction work. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. March 23, 2011: Damaged houses stand amid debris swept away by tsunami in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: Debris is almost cleared. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. March 13, 2011: A tsunami-beached ship lies among debris in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: The ship remained there with little cleaned around it. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. March 12, 2011: Damaged cars are submerged in flooded residential area with other debris swept away by tsunami in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: A car goes by debris in the cleared street. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. March 18, 2011: An overturned car sits on the rooftop of a damaged building in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011:The car still stays in the same position on the building while its surrounding area is almost cleaned up. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. March 14, 2011: A shinto torii, or gateway, leading to Kozuchi shrine stands among the debris in Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: The debris nearly all cleared. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. March 24, 2011: Ships swept away by tsunami are piled up each other on the ground in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: The ships stay in the same position in the area almost unchanged. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. March 14, 2011: Rescue workers search for tsunami survivors amid debris in a residential area in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: The ships stay in the same position in the area almost unchanged. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. March 12, 2011: A ship swept away by tsunami sits amid debris-covered residential area in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: The ships stay in the same position in the area getting cleaned up. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. March 15, 2011:A a ship swept away by tsunami sits amid debris-covered residential area in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: The ship stays in the same position in the area almost cleaned up. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. March 12, 2011: Residents wait for rescuers on the balcony of the debris-dangling house in Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: The debris almost cleared. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. March 15, 2011: Ddebris from houses swept away by tsunami are left untouched in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: Some buildings stand in the same area almost cleaned up. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. March 24, 2011: A TV antenna leans near a stone statue of the guardian deity of children sitting among the debris in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture.
    June 4, 2011: The debris cleared and the statue wearing a new red cap. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    AP
    Above: Slideshow (27) Then-and-now: Tsunami cleanup
  2. Image: Kawauchimura Village in the Radius of 20-30 km from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
    Koichi Kamoshida / EPA
    Slideshow (9) Devastation in Japan after quake

Interactive: Earthquake aftermath

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