Parentless kids in eastern Japan, many orphaned by the devastating April earthquake and tsunami, are getting much-needed clothes, food, blankets and other supplies thanks to the pleas of a U.S. military wife, a Seattle talk radio show, a network of volunteers and a host of generous donors.
It all started when Gemini Sanford called “The Ron & Don Show,” a talk radio show on Seattle’s KIRO-FM, from Misawa, Japan, on March 22 — 11 days after a magnitude 9 quake struck the eastern part of the country and unleashed a devastating tsunami that destroyed entire villages.
Sanford, whose hometown is Everett, Wash., and whose husband is a senior chief petty officer at Naval Air Facility Misawa, was explaining on the air what is was like to be in eastern Japan at the time.
The Misawa base emerged relatively unscathed but other areas weren’t so lucky. Although U.S. military members had the option to leave, Sanford said she wasn’t going to evacuate because the Bikou-En Orphanage up the road needed her help.
“We started asking her about the orphanage, and she was telling us how they were receiving new orphans daily, possibly orphaned in the quake and tsunami event, and how they were hurting and running out of food and warm clothing,” recalled Don O'Neill, the Don half of “Ron & Don.”
"You’re talking about kids who have lost everything. They have nothing,” Sanford said on the show.
In an email interview this week, Sanford explained that American military members stationed at the base have been volunteering at the orphanage for more than 20 years.
"I had been to the orphanage before, and loved how happy all the kids seemed, how open friendly and loving they were. After the tsunami, we went to the orphanage and they had less than four days of dried food left, and no foreseeable way of getting more, so this actually started as a food drive on my end to help feed the kids," Sanford recalled.
On the spot, the show’s hosts decided to put out a public appeal for donations of specific food items, children’s clothing, blankets, batteries and other goods.
“That’s when then the floodgates really opened,” O’Neill said.
“We had no expectations. It really took us by surprise what happened. People just started donating and donating and dropping off donations,” said Rachel Belle, a reporter with “The Ron & Don Show.”
When the week-long donation drive dubbed "Operation Airlift Japan" ended, listeners had contributed nearly 50 tons of goods — enough to fill up more than a dozen semitrailers, said Belle.
Dozens of listeners spent nights and weekends volunteering, sorting through the donations and boxing them up properly so they could get through customs.
A nonprofit called LIFT, formed in response to the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, stepped in to help with the complicated delivery logistics. The charity managed to get everything trucked from the warehouse to the Port of Seattle, shipped by sea to Tokyo and trucked up the east coast of Japan to Misawa for free.
The $1.3 million worth of donations arrived in Japan mid- June, and service members at Misawa Air Base were helping to unload them a week later.
Bikou-En and other orphanages and needy organizations began receiving the donations June 27.
“It was definitely a collaborative effort with a lot of folks who worked behind the scenes to make sure the stuff got there,” O’Neill said.
Belle and O’Neill were flying to Japan on Thursday to meet the orphaned children who are benefiting from the donations. Also on their itinerary is a visit to what’s left of the coastal town of Noda, which was inundated by tsunami waves.
Of Operation Airlift Japan, “I think the thing that resonates with me is how generous people are and especially the power of radio,” O’Neill said. “it’s something that people are with you very day in the car when you come home and connect with you as a person.
“I think they (listeners) picture their own child leaving for school one day and by time school gets out … the biggest quake and tsunami wipes out the whole town. It’s easy to think, 'that could have been my kid.'”
Sanford said she was "shocked and awed" by the generous response.
"I have said that it is impossible for me to see how there are any hungry kids. When you look at what one show, one city (Seattle) was able to accomplish in such a short time, why cant every city do that?"