NPO Partner Project Supports Children in Tohoku
The Great East Japan Earthquake took the lives of 15,899 people with 2,527 people still missing. 1,538 children lost one of their parents and over 800 of them reside in Miyagi Prefecture.
“It has been over 10 years since the disaster and it might seem like everything has gone back to normal on the surface. However, the trauma of losing loved ones does not easily go away,” Ms. Chiho Shimura of Kokoro Smile Project reflected.
Kokoro Smile Project is an organization that supports children who lost their parents to the disaster, who are afraid of going to school, and their parents. Ms. Shimura was living in Kanagawa Prefecture in 2011 before founding the organization in 2012. Through her assistance work in Ishinomaki, she felt the immense need to provide long-term and tailored support for families dealing with loss.
She encountered children with low self-esteem and often exhibiting impulsive, rebellious, and destructive behaviors. These children did not receive enough affection from their caretakers due to mental health issues or tried to pretend to be their deceased siblings for the mourning parents. They might lack the ability to express themselves and a sense of self-worth and responsibility. In some cases, those children experience bullying and stop going to school. Floods and earthquakes trigger their trauma but they don’t receive enough mental health support. Moreover, there are children who become isolated, harm themselves, and experience mental health issues.
Kokoro Smile Project provides tailored support for children and parents who have experienced trauma. Their campus has a park with bouldering walls where children can run around and release their stress. “Children often relieve stress through play and later start expressing their feelings.” Ms. Shimura and her team understand how difficult it is for children to speak about their loss. They also support the children through art therapy with coloring and drawing.
“Why did you pick that color?” “Why did you create that shape?” “How are you feeling?” Ms. Shimura asks as children work on their art. As they continue in therapy, less talkative children sometimes begin to open up.
Children who have been able to express their painful experiences, deep anxieties, and worries through the therapy gain their normal lives back, return to school, and begin opening up to their parents. Ms. Shimura provides a wide range of services - home visits, hot meals, tutoring, and transportation. Parents are also supported through individual and family therapies.
“Sometime after the disaster, I thought our job was done. Because of the pandemic, some children began to come back. I think it is important that we keep their safe space open,” said Ms. Shimura. She and her team continue learning about grief counseling and working with specialists, healthcare facilities, schools, parents, and local residents, and extending their support to families in need.
“Some families might think they are okay but anxiety could hit them at any time. Children who lost their loved ones are experiencing unique trauma and they may not have someone to talk to. I hope we continue to be their safe place no matter how old they might be.”
Civic Force is supporting Kokoro Smile Project as part of the Great East Japan Earthquake assistance activities.
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