For first grade teacher Kara Millsap, a pen pal project with students in Sendai, Japan was more important as a learning tool for Global Citizenry than a writing assignment. However, when the project started last autumn she didn't realize how hard this lesson would turn out to be.
After learning about the 9.0 earthquake and the ensuing tsunami that ravaged parts of Japan, Millsap braced herself for questions from her students on Friday morning. But the questions didn't come.
"I don't think they had heard about it, or else they hadn't put it together," she said.
So that afternoon she sent emails to her student's parents asking them to use their best judgment in explaining the situation to the children.
"When the kids came in on Monday, I knew some of them knew about it, because they were focusing on (their pen pals) being OK." For Millsap, the event opened up an opportunity to cover science, technology, vital human needs, and the idea of being "global citizens."
"Right away they wanted to send them their blankies and teddy bears," says Millsap.
At both Lakeridge and Island Park elementary schools, this tragedy has allowed the students to connect to their pen pals on a deeper level, and their writing shows it. Just a few days ago, students at Lakeridge received their letters from their pen pals in Sendai, complete with gifts of origami. This week, as they wrote back, their letters were full of concern and compassion for their friends, as you can read in this letter from Sam, a first-grader:
"Are you okay in the earthquake? I’m glad that your family is okay and I really hope that your friends are okay too. I’m feeling very sorry for you. I can’t imagine if that ever happened to me. I would be very scared. I wish it didn’t happen to you. Do you have enough good food? Thank you for sending me the origami."
The difficulties in logistics for providing aid to a community hit by such a large-scale natural disaster make it difficult to provide help. Millsap was able to introduce the concept of humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross to her first-graders, who immediately "got ideas of having garage sales, a bake sale, breaking into their piggy banks."
Not knowing how to help the community in one of the hardest hit areas of Japan has been difficult for Lorette Kusak, who started the pen pal program between first and second grade students a few years ago. The Mercer Island students have been writing and receiving letters from students at MeySen Academy, a Christian-based school located in the suburbs of Maruyama and Takamori north of Sendai.
“I'm waiting. I don’t know. We’re waiting to raise some funds. We’re trying to figure out a way to help. I don’t even know how to help,” said Kusak.
Kusak retired five years ago after 37 years with the at Lakeridge Elementary, and now works as a consultant, curriculum developer and teacher trainer for the full English Immersion program at MeySen. The school specializes in early childhood development and English as a Foreign Language.
She is hopeful that the students, their families and the teachers at MeySen are all OK, as the school is located 20 miles in from the ocean and on higher ground, and therefore was spared from the tsunami.
She received news that the school will be used as the headquarters for two relief aid organizations. However, because the earthquake hit in the mid-afternoon, the kindergarten (4- and 5-year-old) students who attend in the morning had already left the campus, and the grade school students who attend after school had not yet arrived, it's difficult to know their whereabouts and status.
“We have not heard of any students that have been injured or worse,” said Kusak, adding, after a pause, “but we have not heard if all our students are OK.”
Pre-school children, who were the only students at MeySen Academy when the earthquake hit, were all accounted for and OK. After the earthquake hit, the pre-schoolers were taken out of the buildings and wrapped in plastic for warmth and protection from the falling snow until the teachers could re-enter the buildings and get their coats. The children were then placed on school buses with the heaters running to keep them warm until their parents arrived.
Communications have been difficult, and Kusak has had to rely on information coming to her through a former vice-principal of MeySen Academy who currently lives in Los Angeles. Kusak has received one phone call from a teacher, some news through social media and email from another teacher who tell her the main concern right now is food and water.
"Right now everything is in survival mode,” the teacher said.
Another concern that looms over Kusak is the radiation danger, with most of MeySen Academy's teachers living about 30 miles from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. Nevertheless, she remains forever hopeful.
"They are all just such sweet children and the spirit of the Japanese will prevail--they are an incredible group," Kusak said. "They operate with courtesy, respect, dignity. Somehow they will prevail."