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Young Americans take center stage in Japan tsunami cleanup

Young American volunteers are taking center stage in Japan's tsunami-stricken areas,  helping clean up and deliver relief to grateful residents.
/ Source: NBC News correspondent

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.

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."

Members of the VolunteerAKITA team clearing drains in Ishinomaki over the holiday weekend. Japan.Ian Williams

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.

The 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.

The VolunteerAKITA team takes a break from clearing drains in Ishinomaki over the holiday weekend. Japan.Ian Williams

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.

"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."

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