When Mary Tanaka noticed an unusually downcast Makoto Ejima moping through Tanaka’s sophomore honors Asian history class a couple of weeks ago, she had a notion it wasn’t just the everyday teenage drama.
Ejima, an exchange student from Japan attending Mid-Pacific Institute, told Tanaka he was getting ready to go home at the end of the week for spring break but wished he could bring something back to help those who lives had been turned upside down by last month’s earthquake and tsunami.
The sentiment resonated with Tanaka, who once lived and taught in Japan. It also lit a fire beneath Ejima’s sophomore classmates, who immediately brainstormed a dozen ideas for doing something — anything — for Japanese citizens in need.
A number of Japan-related drives were already under way on campus, with MPI students from the elementary to high school levels directing their creative energies to collecting goods and money for the Red Cross and other organizations. But in Ejima the sophomore class had a rallying point around which students would launch a most ambitious collection program, one that still has administrators shaking their heads.
The students had to work quickly. Ejima was scheduled to leave the island at 6 p.m. March 18, which gave the class less than two days to organize and mobilize.
Sophomore Taylor Matsumura, who had her own family ties to Japan, would prove pivotal to the drive.
Matsumura’s father hailed from Adachi, in the middle of Tokyo, and sold Adidas and other sportswear lines in Japan. When he died three years ago, he left a large stash of bags, clothing and other goods in the Matsumura home. When Matsumura heard about the drive, it seemed as though cruel fate had opened a door for the family to do good in a most personal and meaningful way.
"It’s sad to think that while we’re here in Hawaii, going to a good school and living very well, people in Japan are suffering," Matsumura said. "It make me think of how lucky we are."
Matsumura and her mother donated several extra-large duffel bags — which would be used to transport mountains of clothes, food, toiletries and other donations — as well as 300 Adidas sweat suits.
With ample help from sophomore Mitchell Heidenreich, senior Fred Ikeler and many others, the students fanned out across campus and their own neighborhoods to gather goods and money wherever and however they could. At chapel, student leaders walked the aisles collecting $5s, $10s and $20s from students and faculty who were only too willing to give. Other students cornered teachers, staff, even school President Joe Rice for donations to help cover the cost of transporting the oversize bags on Ejima’s flight.
"The kids took charge," Tanaka said. "They counted the money, set up stations to sort the donations — they just ran with it."
The donations amassed slowly, starting with homeroom that Thursday.
Teachers and staff showed up with goods from their own homes; students donated money one handful of change at a time in some cases.
"Sometimes with young people we only look at the faults," Rice said, "but this was a situation where they led the way with compassion and put actions ahead of thought. A lot of times we’re frozen because we can’t see the light of how to do something in a timely way. These students just kept their focus on the end result of helping people and found a way to get it done. I think there’s a lesson to be learned here."
Within a day the students had collected $700 to cover baggage fees and enough food and other supplies to fill a dozen human-size duffels.
Tanaka and Ejima’s host mother, Margaret Rahr, accompanied Ejima to the airport.
"I don’t usually cry, but as I drove off I started to cry because I couldn’t believe that we had done all of this in just one day," Tanaka said.
But there were complications.
The would-be do-gooders had wrongly assumed that each additional bag (beyond the two that carried Ejima’s personal belongings) would cost $50 in extra baggage fees; in fact, the money raised was intended specifically to cover those costs. But the real tally totaled thousands of dollars.
So, before the JAL personnel, Tanaka, Rahr and Ejima did what they could, begging and bowing, bowing and begging until the airlines graciously agreed to waive the charges.
And so Ejima flew back to Japan, his flight sparsely seated due to numerous cancellations.
In Japan, Ejima once again had to plead his way around a costly charge as Japanese customs agents questioned his intentions for the massive check-in load.
Eventually cleared to leave, he hit the ground running, rallying his old friends to help prep the goods for delivery to three nongovernment organizations his mother had found to help with distribution to needy areas.
Now back in Hawaii, surrounded by classmates whose friendship and affection have never seemed so clear, Ejima paused this week to reflect on what had been accomplished.
"When I was in the fourth grade, we lived in Sri Lanka," he said. "When the (Asian tsunami of 2004) hit, a couple of my classmates started a bake sale to raise money for sporting equipment for school in the countries that had been affected. It felt good at the time to be able to help others. This time, people got together to help my country. I’m really thankful for that."