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An inspired T-shirt builds a bridge across the sea

By BJ Sabate

LAST UPDATED: 1:45 a.m. HST, Mar 11, 2012

March 11, 2011, was yet another meaningful event in my lifetime. It will constantly remind me of how precious life really is, and how Mother Nature can change your world overnight.

At the time of the tsunami and earthquake that hit Japan a year ago, I was part of a movement with Grp Home, a group of 10 young business people in the clothing industry. We came together to promote aloha. We came together to build bridges and work together like in the olden days, when we were all neighbors and we all looked after one another. The 10 of us were set to meet at Magic Island the morning after the tsunami. When I turned into Magic Island, I got chicken skin when I saw the hundreds of boats parked out at sea. I thought, "whew, we dodged another tsunami." But this time, Japan didn't.

One of the members of Grp Home pulled out a piece of paper with the word "Aloha," and a red circle was in place of the letter "o." He said, "You guys wanna try run this?" That was when it all started. Boom! We all looked at each other and everyone was like, "Shoots!" and we decided to do it. I remember thinking to myself, "this may be a little nuts."

I jumped on the phone and ordered around 600 white T-shirts immediately.

In about two hours, a bunch of the members were going to head to the print shop and try to get the shirt on the news that night to let everyone know we were trying to help. Till then, we had a meeting with Daniel Anthony from Mana Ai about pa‘i‘ai. With hundreds of boats surrounding us in the ocean, he was pounding fresh kalo with his stone and wooden board, something you don't see everyday. He talked about the simple things in life, the simplicity of the kalo. Meanwhile the tsunami was lingering in my head. I was sitting among a group of people I had known and heard of, and admired from afar, but never worked with. We were about to produce the biggest T-shirt fundraiser you've ever seen in Hawaii.

By 3:30 p.m., March 1, the first "Aloha for Japan" tee was on the press — while the boys were having some Aloha Friday beverages, talking about what we saw on TV. A few hours later, the shirts were picked up in hopes of reaching the TV news that night. I drove over to my friends' baby luau after and later sat in front of the TV. It was almost 10 o'clock. The three of us sat on the couch and witnessed the beginning of the end.

The shirt we had just printed, for a fundraiser for Japan who just had the biggest natural catastrophe ever, just shot on the screen along with the top headlines. "And there is a T-shirt if you wanna help … " said the newscaster. I think the whole state was watching that newscast. That's when I knew we hadn't printed enough shirts. The next day, our six stores that were selling it all had lines at least 50 deep. We printed that one design for the next two weeks straight.

On Friday, I put 100 shirts online for sale. They sold out by Saturday. On Sunday I threw up a thousand, just to see. By Monday afternoon, those were gone. I put up another thousand and by Tuesday, they were gone. Our print shop had aunties and uncles packing the shirts, wearing their aprons and all. We have sold more than 25,000 T-shirts and the state of Hawaii raised more than $8 million to give to Japan.

Our group got recognized for the effort, and we hope to sell this shirt forever. For me, it hit home for sure. My mother is pure Japanese. Cowboy, my grandpa, was a great taro farmer. It was just one of those days.

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