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PORTLAND — As the death toll from Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami mount and officials there struggle to avoid a meltdown at a nuclear power plant, four local groups are teaming up to raise funds for the relief effort.
The funding, however, will not just go to general relief. It is being directed towards the Aomori Prefecture – Maine’s sister state, which suffered significant damage.
The relationship between Maine and the northeast region of Japan dates back to the late 1800s, when a 1,500-ton wooden ship owned by Arthur Sewall & Co. in Bath became shipwrecked off Japan’s coast with 23 sailor aboard.
The residents of Shariki, a small village near Aomori, boarded their boats in an effort to save the crew. Although 19 people perished, four were saved and nourished back to health.
The disaster brought the communities together. In 1994, the Aomori Prefecture, which built a monument to honor the Americans who perished, officially became the sister state of Maine.
Now, after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck the region on March 11, it is the citizens of Aomori who need help. Four Maine groups are teaming up to provide it: the Maine Aomori Sister State Advisory Council, Japan-American Society of Maine, Friends of Shinagawa and the Maine International Trade Center.
Maine Aomori President Steve MacDougall said the groups have established a fund at TD Bank. Donations may be made in person at any TD Bank branch, and checks payable to “Friends of Aomori – Earthquake Relief” may be mailed to TD Bank, 790 Lisbon St., Lewiston, ME 04240.
“I hope we can begin to see funds go into that account quickly,” MacDougall said.
When the earthquake hit, MacDougall said the advisory council was in the process of planning for a visit this fall by Aomori officials, one of several cultural exchanges that are a result of the sister state relationship.
“Once we heard of the earthquake and tsunami we quickly shifted to focus our efforts on what they need for relief and support,” MacDougall said.
The group has established a Facebook page, Maine Japan Earthquake Relief Effort, to keep people updated on news and events.
Although Aomori was not as hard hit as Sendai, MacDougall said the group felt it was important to help a region of Japan that has close historical ties to the state.
“It’s very difficult to get your mind around what happened,” said MacDougal, 59, who has visisted Aomori four times.
Tom Morse, vice president of the Friends of Shinagawa and a board member of the Japan-American Society of Maine, said the port of Hachinohe in the Aomori Prefecture has been closed as a result of the disaster.
“Their port is crippled,” Morse, 57, said. “It’s where a lot of food comes into the Aomori Prefecture.”
MacDougall said the immediate needs of Aomori residents were outlined in a letter from the prefecture’s governor to former Gov. John Baldacci. The Aomori governor said people need blankets, clothes, food, water and other basic necessities.
But since their port, like many others along Japan’s northeastern coast, has been destroyed, with vessels washed miles inland, MacDougall said cash donations are the best way to help.
In addition to the account established at TD Bank, the group has worked with Aomori officials to open similar accounts at two Japanese banks. The money will be periodically wired from the United States to Japan.
Unlike national disaster-relief organizations like the Red Cross, which use a portion of donations for administrative costs, Morse said, all of the money – except a $30 transfer fee – will benefit Aomori residents.
“We wanted to figure out a way that 99.9 percent of the funds we raise can go where they’re needed,” Morse said. “Now, it’s how can we best spread the word?”
Artists at the Portland Conservatory of Music are donating their fees and will be collecting donations during their noontime concert on Thursday at First Parish Church, 625 Congress St.
MacDougall said he is planning to send an announcement to local schools through the Maine Principals Association, so students who are raising relief funds can consider donating to their fund.
Some students and residents have already begun raising money for the fund.
In Yarmouth, students are selling pieces of origami, the Japanese art of folding paper into objects such as birds and flowers, for at least $2 each.
As of Monday, YHS sophomore Carrie Adams, who lived in Tokyo for three years, said students had raised nearly $270, but will continue to sell their creations until they are all gone.
Proceeds will be donated to the Aomori relief effort, the 15-year-old student said.
“They were still hit pretty hard,” she said of Aomori. “I decided origami would be a fun thing to do, because its something you can keep and remember.”
Japan native Miki Pyle, who runs the August Moon Cafe catering business from her South Portland home, closed her business for several days following the event. Her parents, who still live in Japan, are OK, but she said she still struggles when she sees the devastation in her homeland.
“For the first three days I couldn’t sleep,” Pyle said. “For a while, I couldn’t watch the news. It was depressing. I really thought we needed to do something and I wanted to bring positive energy.”
So, the 55-year-old chef held a benefit dinner at her home on Sunday. She cooked up a big pot of chicken and vegetable curry and prepared a salad and dessert, selling dinners for $10 each.
Pyle said she ended up raising nearly $500, which she is donating to the Aomori relief effort.
Pyle said she and her husband, Dallas, still plan on taking a trip to Japan that was planned before the tragedy. “I’m sure I’m going to be doing some charity work while I’m over there,” she said.
Fundraising efforts for other organizations are also continuing.
Yuki Hall, a senior at Portland’s Casco Bay High School, is raising money for the Red Cross by selling clothing emblazoned with a weeping face with the message “Help Japan.” Information about hall and how to buy a T-shirt can be found at www.japanfirstaid.blogspot.com.
Hall is also looking to establish a pen-pal program between students in Maine and Japan.
Also, Angela Dang, a student in Portland Arts and Technology High School’s graphic arts program, has created a “Hope for Japan” T-shirt that is being sold at PATHS to raise money for the Red Cross.
The Bates College Orchestra collected more than $6,000 from ticket sales and donations at a March 20 concert to benefit the town of Yamamoto-cho, the home of conductor Hiroya Miura.
The governor’s office, meanwhile, on March 17 urged Mainers to make sure their donations are made to trusted sources, highlighting Interaction.org as one potential recipient.
The group is an alliance of more than 30 U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations operating internationally to provide relief to Japan.
The attorney general’s office, meanwhile, warned residents to be careful to avoid scams and to never give out credit, debit or bank account numbers over the phone or Internet.
Charities can be verified through the Maine Office of Licensing and Registration (624-8603).
L.L.Bean, meanwhile, announced on March 17 that it was donating $250,000 to the Red Crosses relief effort. The company operates a call center, administrative offices and 20 stores in Japan; five of the stores were damaged by the earthquake.
For people like MacDougall, there is a moral imperative to focus relief efforts on those suffering in Maine’s sister state, which rushed to the aid of Americans in peril in 1889.
“Here we are now, 122 years later, and these people are experiencing a disaster,” he said. “Now, it’s our time to reach out to them.”
BATH — A relief fund is starting in the City of Ships on behalf of its Japanese sister city, Tsugaru, in the wake of the recent earthquake and tsunami.
The Bath Tsugaru Sister Exchange Board is establishing a fund to assist relief efforts. Checks should be made out to “Cheseborough Program Relief Fund.” They should be sent or delivered to Carolyn Lockwood at Bath City Hall, 55 Front St., Bath, ME 04530.
A donations drop box will also be at the City Hall entrance, and a weekend and evening drop box is at the side door. Support and fundraising activities are being planned for April 9.