Not lost in translation…

By LIFT on March 11, 2014

Categories: First Person Perspective, Our Work, Real Stories


Three years ago, in the very early morning hours of March 11th, I was glued to my laptop as I watched live footage of a historic earthquake and an incredible tsunami that rolled in shortly after. I must admit, it wasn’t the first time I saw disaster and destruction footage online, but never had it hit home like when I watched my people, on my land, run for their lives. Despite being 6,770 miles away from “my land,” I knew that things were not going to be the same anymore, not for me and not for Japan.

I was fortunate to be accepted to a volunteer program run by Bost0n-based All Hands Volunteers and spent that summer and fall working in a few small towns that dotted the northern part of the destruction. I dug mud out of ditches and debris out of rice patties. I learned how to deconstruct houses and rebuild playgrounds. I met amazing fellow volunteers from across the world and connected with local residents so deeply that they now send me messages to “come home soon.”

I witnessed the aftermath of what happens to a community when disaster wipes away everything from everybody without discrimination. Sure, if one’s house was built on a hill instead of at sea level, it probably survived. But the loss of a community was equal to every community member.

And this community happened to be an aging community. I met elderly gentlemen who had built rich lives over the decades hanging their heads in despair, and proud grandparents refusing to leave their hometown and living out of tiny temporary housing despite their out-of-town children’s pleas. I was especially moved to help this aging community because I couldn’t get over the unfairness of living to be 80 or 90 years old to have such horror and tragedy hit you. Nobody deserves this!

Three years later, during this anniversary of the Great Northeast Earthquake and Tsunami Disaster in Japan, I have been reflecting on my personal experiences since 2011 and I’ve realized that there are many parallels to the work I am doing here at LIFT-Los Angeles.

Photo Credit: All Hands Volunteer

Photo Credit: All Hands Volunteer

As I have gotten to know our community members here at LIFT-LA and Southern Los Angeles, I often reminisce about my time as a disaster recovery volunteer and how interestingly similar the LIFT model is to what we were doing daily in Northeast Japan. The local residents who came seeking help from us at All Hands each had different stories, but were suffering from similar struggles, as do our members at LIFT. Their ultimate needs were great – to rebuild their homes, to rebuild their businesses or find employment again, and to piece together the history that got washed away in forms of photos, mementos, family treasures.

But when they came to All Hands, their “ask” was humble – they wanted a hand, or sometimes a group of strong hands, to lift debris out of their yards, to tear down some rotten insulation, or to get mud out from under their floors. And similarly to our Members who happen upon our offices in the Magnolia Center, the residents of the disaster zone came to the All Hands base office with a small case of curiosity (“Who are these people and is it true that they will help for free?) and a desire to have their stories heard. Simply listening to their stories was a big part of our jobs. Over time, by working as volunteers on simple requests from local residents we gradually gained the trust of the entire community.

I find that the help provided by All Hands mirrors in many ways what our Advocates do at LIFT. The All Hands volunteers were not experts in disaster recovery or construction; many of us had little experience with spades and hammers. Sure, the collected muscle strength made a big dent in the expansive amount of manual labor that was necessary to clean up after the disaster. But what I saw most was how the eagerness and “can-do” attitude of the volunteers uplifted the spirits of the residents who received help.

Federal and local aid came slowly and I know patience and grit were key for the survivors to get to where they are today. Even with all the work done, recovery in Japan is hardly finished. But I would like to believe that in those first several months after the disaster occurred, the presence of All Hands Volunteers – a group of foreign volunteers from across the world who flew in purely for the sake of helping – gave the local residents a boost of hope they were not expecting. It wasn’t all about the technical work that got done – and we did a lot! It was also the unexpected partnerships that occurred between volunteers old and young from all corners of the world with the local community members who had never met a foreigner before. These relationships created a lasting impression and gave the local residents back their pride and a belief that they could persevere.

Photo Credit: All Hands Volunteers

Photo Credit: All Hands Volunteers

A group of volunteers was able to do this over several months in a foreign country… and now I see a group of volunteer advocates doing the same in our South LA community through one-on-one support here in Magnolia Place. When Members come in struggling with unemployment and homelessness, they need more than financial and technical assistance; they need social connections and emotional supports. At LIFT, they get an advocate, a partner, and someone who they know will have their back. We believe that the act of two people coming together and sharing their strengths in a trusting relationship is the most important step in creating transformation and achieving long term success.

In reflecting on my experience in Japan just three short years ago, the translation is not lost on me: No matter what the struggle we are facing, we all need the same things to get ahead – personal and social foundations that give us hope and confidence in ourselves.