Christmas in Tohoku with OGA for AID

What one child called a “dark wall” rising from the sea crashed down on Minami-Sanriku, destroying the city hall, and washing away everyone and everything in its path. People’s lives were turned upside down. Relatives and friends died. Houses were torn apart. Businesses and employment floated out to sea.

Following the destruction of the 3.11 tsunami, an inflow of humanitarian concern brought food and water to traumatized survivors, many of whom had witnessed death, and brushed close by it themselves.

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April Easter Workshop

This Easter Sunday SOGO Team (Kevin, Elma, and Ruri) from Tokyo joined PlaceTo Grow workshops in Tohoku and led fitness games and activities to help continue to bring communities together.

This year our goal is to connect the communities through wellness and fitness. This was the second SOGO trip to Tohoku & we focused on Easter fitness games. We visited Shizugawa High School and Ooya Asobiba. We did Radio Taiso Xtreme version, which was a great way to get everyone together. We had so much fun moving around while sharing words in English and Japanese.

The children have practiced the Radio Taiso Extreme since they did it at the 1st SOGO×PTG workshop in February, so they were quite advanced already!Playing Easter games was new for kids in Minamisanriku, so the kids were very excited to find eggs and get snacks!!

At the Asobiba the US navy team of volunteers from Misawa Air Force Military Base spent two days building monkey bars for the children and setting up a swing and other climbing equipment. We celebrating the reopening of the children’s play center with over 20 local residents by having a BBQ and dancing and singing outside with guest performer Stuart O leading as the Easter Chick!.


25: Local Children

21: Local Adults

16: Volunteers


Easter Egg hunt

Radio Taiso X

Fitness Games

Communication Circle

Spring BBQ

8 Years On, Remembering 3.11

This article is based off of the experiences of Place to Grow founder Angela Ortiz

March 11th 2:46pm, a moment that would forever change the lives of thousands. The destruction was beyond anything imaginable; my first reaction when experiencing the aftermath of the disaster could only be described as incredulous disbelief. I had never seen destruction so close and at such a personal level. It was impossible not to feel hopeless in the face of the enormity of the task ahead.

The immediate aftermath was a frantic blur, yet one memory still remains clear in my mind. We were driving fast in a crowded van, but as the silhouette of an old fisherman caught my eye, it felt like time began to move in slow motion. Weathered skin, features shaped from the elements and lifestyle of a fisherman, strong and stout for his age. He was standing amidst the ruins of his life, holding an item from the remains. His red eyes glistened and as he let his hands drop, I had a flash of insight into his emotional state. Overwhelmed. Hopeless. I knew these emotions, I had felt them all my life. But in that moment I understood that what he was experiencing was an extreme, unimaginably more painful reality.

It has always blown my mind that we know so little about the stories of survivors. I read an article in 2014 about the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia, and what they were experiencing was similar. Depression, suicide, despair, disconnected lives, solitude, abandonment. In the years following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami I saw it happening all again. Only this time it was happening in my own backyard, to the people I had grown up amongst. It was happening to my family. It was this close connection that compelled and spurred me into action. It was as though I was being pulled forward by something bigger than myself. Ultimately, it was this drive that led to the founding of  Place to Grow.

Today marks 8 years since the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Tohoku. In this time of remembrance, we’re also reflecting on the growth of affected communities and celebrating the hope with which they look into the future. Time has helped with healing; families are coming back together and communities are trying to recreate familiar spaces and build new traditions. Towns and cities are regaining a semblance of normalcy as new stores, homes, roads and community centers are constructed. Yet outward appearances do not account for everything; as the physical reminders of the disaster fade into memory it is all too easy to be dismissive of the ongoing struggle that survivors face.

Streets are still more silent than they used to be, they don’t bustle with tourists the way they once did. Some towns will make it, others won’t, and over time certain support systems will disappear. Towns along the coastline are now defined by this disaster. For children this is an identity and burden that they had no choice in. They need role models and peers that inspire them to create new visions for themselves. This is where volunteers play a role, connecting and helping form bonds within communities.

Place to Grow’s core belief is that providing inspiration, connection, and support to survivors of major disasters is the most important thing we can do to expedite their long-term recovery. Bringing fragmented communities together with workshops that connect young and old, and locals with outside volunteers, is the mechanism we use to make it a reality. Along this journey I’ve learnt what the role of a volunteer can be. I’ve realized that to be a volunteer is not to be a saviour, a hero swooping in to help the helpless. Because what happens is symbiotic. The role of outside volunteers is to challenge and walk with those affected, supporting their journey from victim to survivor.

The act of supporting something bigger than you pushes you to face your limits- emotional, physical and mental. It’s simple things like attempting to write an article, plan a Christmas party, build a social media marketing plan, navigate a road trip or coordinate volunteers. But it’s these challenges that have allowed us to grow. It’s the little things like storytelling tours, local festivals and summer fireworks that encapsulate the healing of communities.

Since the disaster, Place to Grow has organized 8 annual Santa Soul Train events and over 50 other community projects that have allowed us to connect communities in Tohoku with volunteers from around the world. We’ve recently partnered with SOGO Fitness and are excited to pursue our 2019 theme of community building through health and wellness. This journey has been one of growth, learning, and discovery, and we’d like to give a big thank you to everybody who has supported us throughout. As an entirely volunteer-run organization, it is your help that makes this continual recovery possible.

You can stay updated and continue to support Place to Grow through this website or our other platforms:

Instagram: @placetogrowngo

Our Wonderful World – Club Asobiba

July 21st - 22nd, 2018

After arriving at Minamisanriku on Saturday, we went to Shizugawa High School to meet with the former principal who will lead the “Minamisanriku Junior Academy”. There, we discussed the details and goals of the program, how PTG will be involved, and presented this to the first prospective participant, his mother, and another interested community member.



6: Local Children

4: Local Adults

5: PTG Volunteers

3: Activities

The program is set to start the first weekend of August, with plans for PTG members to collaborate and get involved with interactively teaching English during our weekend trips. The former principal seemed very excited and hopeful, and the Minamisanriku Junior Academy will become a significant part of PTG moving forward.

On Sunday we arrived at Asobiba around 10:30 and were met by a small yet eager group of kids. We started with introductions, teaching each person to say “Hi my name is____ what’s your name?” and explaining the importance of eye contact. Some of the kids were shy and unsure, muttering the words quietly, or repeating after Angela one word at a time.

They started warming up as we moved on to watching a song on YouTube about the earth and learning the vocabulary words for the day “earth, planet, world, ocean, land etc.” After explaining each word and giving a Japanese translation, we told the kids to come back later with their notebooks to write them down.

We moved on to the craft for the day- finger painting. Each kid got a big piece of paper, and we set up the finger paints in paper cups on the table. At first they were hesitant to dip their fingers in, but once Angela started to paint they all got involved. Everyone got creative in their art from paintings of music notes and Sakura trees to traffic lights and abstract splatters.

Leaving the paintings to dry, the kids moved on to playing in their makeshift pool- blue tarp set up in a wooden structure. Angela, Lisa, and Leah joined in, stepping into the pool and splashing around with the kids to cool down. Kyal, Masaya, and Angela talked chatted with the adults while Leah and Lisa conducted interviews with some of the participants. After lunch of soumen and a group photo, it was time to say goodbye. Practicing their English, the kids said “see you again!” and waved to us as we got into the car to head home.

Before going back to Tokyo, we stopped in to thank and chat to the owner of the local Taxi company who gives us prizes for Santa Soul Train and provides transport for large volunteer groups.

Local Interview #3

1.   Why is a community important to you as a mother?

Having a community allows mothers to meet and learn from various generations, to receive support from the community and grow with their children. Through interactions with people from different backgrounds, children can learn the basics manners, including greetings.

2.   What value do you think the Santa soul train event in MSR brings to your children’s lives?

Children are looking forward to Santa Soul Train every year. Santa Soul Train is where children get to meet and build friendship with people from different countries. Santa Soul Train became their children’s favorite event of the year, especially because there were hardly anything they looked forward to after the 3.11. They also enjoy the performance, food, presents, as well as the English learning opportunities there as well.

3.   Share your hopes or fears for the future around raising your children.

Our concern about the children’s future is that our community doesn’t have very many children now, and we aren’t sure how many people will remain in Minamisanriku in the future. Would there be schools in town? Would the community be sustainable? Would our children continue to want to stay in their hometown? Would our children come back after finishing trading school or college? Minamisanriku was able to recover to this point because of the support from many people, both domestic and international, so we would like our children to love their Minamisanriku, remain here, and revitalize their hometown when they grow up.

Father’s Day Workshop @ Asobiba

Place to Grow returned to Kesennuma on June 17th to make more crafts with the children at Asobiba.

Our agenda for the afternoon consisted of three activities:
1)        Bingo games with summer-related words in English
2)        Father’s Day decoration making
3)        Bouncy-ball making

When volunteers Aki, Kayleigh and Lucia arrived at Asobiba we were greeted by children on the playground by two donkeys that they take care of.

While the children were having late lunch we prepared for the workshop beside them. They were so curious as they watched us dissolving a large amount of salt into bottled water, which was to be used later in the day.


11: Local Children

3: Local Adults

3: PTG Volunteers

After a brief introduction of everyone in the room, we got right into Bingo games. Kayleigh, an American student who is living in Minami Sanriku for the early part of summer, was the caller. “A T-shirt”, “Camping”, “Vacation”, “Sun-tan Lotion” …she read aloud then showed the picture cards: “Bingo!” The first winner was a grandma who volunteers at Asobiba. There was much excitement and a lot of shouting as many of the participants got closer to winning. We played two rounds and everyone had at least one Bingo win, and received a small prize of snacks and balloons, which turned out to be quite popular for the rest of the workshop.

We then moved onto the Father’s Day crafts. Using scratch paper, colored paper, origami, pens and crayons, children created a decoration they can hang on the wall at home. One boy said “my dad is going out for drinks tonight, he loves beer” and drew a picture of beer. A girl wrote words of encouragement for her dad. Another boy whose dad is a fisherman drew a boat and fish. Representative Director of Asobiba, Ms. Miyoko partnered with young kids who needed help with ideas and cutting out origami into hearts and stars.

The last item on our agenda was to get messy making bouncy balls from laundry starch and the saturated brine that we prepared before the workshop. It was tricky to make the ball into just the right firmness, Aki got busy teaching everyone being the only person who had made it before. Before the balls were dry they were slimy, which prompted one of the boys to make a request at the very end, “I want to make slime next time!” Then off he went to play outside.

It was nice to see some of the same kids participate again. They are such an active group of children and we truly appreciated their enthusiasm.