Every year ASIJ sixth graders visit the Kiyosato Educational Experiment Project (KEEP) in Yamanashi Prefecture to experience the great outdoors. This summer, with the support of ASIJ staff and funding from the ASIJ Japan Relief Fund, KEEP welcomed nineteen children aged 3-12 and seven mothers from radiation hot spots in Fukushima for a special retreat. The project was spearheaded by Elicia Cousins, who graduated from ASIJ in 2009 and is currently interning at ASIJ in the Writing Lab. Along with ASIJ alumna Emma Hunt and Michelle Stolle (both class of 2012), Elicia spent four days in the beautiful natural surroundings, giving the children a chance to play outdoors.
All of the families come from areas of Fukushima that have been heavily affected by radiation following the nuclear disaster in 2011. However, they are outside of mandatory evacuation zone set by the government and for financial or personal reasons are unable to relocate without government assistance. The children and their parents are under a huge amount of stress, which is only increased by the fact that the children cannot play outside for long amounts of time.
Elicia, who had also volunteered at other retreats for Fukushima children, believed that a retreat was a great way to allow the children to play outside with no restrictions and enjoy nature. For the parents that came on the retreat, it was also a chance to relax and to network with others in the same situation. And funds donated from the ASIJ Japan Relief Fund meant we could offer this opportunity at no charge to the families. Elicia, Emma and Michelle arranged hikes, games, campfires and smores and of course plenty of free time to just play and run around outside.
On the last night in Kiyosato surrounding the fire, each of the children, mothers and volunteers had a chance to speak to the group about their experiences during those four days. The tears of happiness started with the first person and continued to the last, but it was so impressive how their shyness had faded away and how intently they listened to one another. It was hard to say goodbye, especially for Elicia, Emma and Michelle who had become so attached to the kids, not just through the outdoor activities together but through all the small moments in between the hikes and games when they were just laughing and relaxing like kids should be.