A mountain to climb- Volunteer Report – Jeff Jensen

Despite his years of wilderness training and being a veteran of numerous mountain rescues, the scenes of destruction that greeted Jeff Jensen in Ishinomaki took his breath away. “It was just so big, the vastness of it. So many people were affected. You can read about it or see it on TV, but you really don’t get an idea of how bad it is till you actually see what’s happening and talk to the people. It’s pretty crazy up there.” Having never volunteered before, it was the scale and immediacy of the disaster that moved Jeff to act. “I realised they need every person they can get. Everything’s gone; it’s going to take minimum two or three years to get close to where it was before.”

As part of the first volunteer team on the ground, Jeff describes how the city had an almost surreal quality to it. “During your lunch break all around you there is debris five, ten feet deep. We were sitting next to a circular debris pool ten feet deep facing the ocean. It had homes and cars in it, and you knew it had people in it too. But we were sitting next to it eating lunch and goofing around. It’s such a weird vibe; it’s hard to wrap your brain around.” During the back-breaking labour of clearing mud from the civic buildings, Jeff began to realise the extent of the disaster. “We were clearing mud out of schools so the kids could get back to school, but there were no desks, no books, no printers. There was nothing.”

Volunteer team leaders being briefed on health and safety issues by Jeff before heading to Ishinomaki for a week of clean up duties.

Despite the bleak picture Jeff initially paints, he was astounded by the reactions of the local people. “The local people are amazing, they are living through some harsh times but they are real about it. Spirits are high.” He saw a stark contrast to the media fuelled panic in Tokyo. “Here, people are hoarding groceries and panicking over gas shortages, but up there people can appreciate that they walked away with their lives.” Jeff also saw how even the smallest donation can make a difference to people, “At the bazaars (supply distribution centres), one day we had six small jars of instant coffee and people were just ecstatic: ‘Oh my god I haven’t had coffee in two and half weeks!’” It’s these small things, coupled with the sharing of stories, that Jeff believes can really help people overcome the tragedy and move on. “Up there I talked to one lady who was joyously showing me the destruction of her home on her cell-phone. She was laughing and smiling the whole time she told me.”

The volunteer effort is essential to the physical rebuilding of the city, but Jeff believes that as people the volunteers can also play another crucial role. “I was clearing mud with one of the administrators from an old folks’ home and the whole time we were laughing and joking. You could see her becoming more relaxed and in a better place herself. That’s something we have an opportunity to do as volunteers, to bring back some brightness into their lives.” He believes that the volunteers have a responsibility not just to rebuild the city but also to the local people themselves. “I know the volunteers are doing as much as they can, but we have to remember that we get to go home but they live there.”

During his time in Ishinomaki, Jeff realised that in order for the volunteer effort to continue to improve he could put his wilderness experience to good use. On their return to Tokyo he and his business partner David Paddock set to work with Peace Boat developing the training system for volunteers on the health and safety aspects of working in the disaster torn city. “We are coming up with manuals to help everyone in the volunteer chain, to make sure no-one gets hurt or sick.” The pair have committed one day a week for six months to the training, but know they will need to spend some more of their time on the ground too. “We will need to go up a couple more times before the summer as advisors, things are ever changing so we’ll need to tweak and change manuals.”

Jeff (centre) and his business partner David Paddock (right) are working with Peace Boat staff members to improve safety systems to deal with the ever-changing challenges facing the volunteer teams.

Jeff knows that rebuilding the crippled city will be a long term effort and that more and more volunteers will be needed over the coming weeks and months. “Don’t forget that even though it’s not front page news any more they still need as much help as they can get. There is plenty of time and many ways to volunteer.  This will be a long haul but one person makes a difference, they really do.”

View the web sites of nature programs and camps with English Adventure , where Jeff is program manager, and Jeff’s business Saitama climbing gym Rock 24.


One Comment on “A mountain to climb- Volunteer Report – Jeff Jensen”

  1. […] ◆(The Original Article)A mountain to climb- Volunteer Report – Jeff Jensen […]

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