McDonogh hosts Japanese exchange students amid catastrophe

School has raised $10,250 for relief efforts; other Md. schools helping

April 03, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

The catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Japan closed schools, interrupted communications and canceled most travel plans, but teachers and parents at Seijo Exchange Gakuen High School in Tokyo decided to continue a longstanding tradition with a Maryland school.

Amid aftershocks and threats of radiation on their country's northeastern coast, they put aside fears and allowed eight students to make the annual two-week trip to McDonogh School in Owings Mills.

"Our principal thought it important that now is the time when Japanese people should go abroad and tell the world about the suffering Japan is now experiencing," Katsumi Ichikawa, a teacher wrote to Dave Harley, a McDonogh history teacher.

"He did not want earthquakes and the nuclear power plant to take away the chance from the students," she wrote.

McDonogh, a private school with about 1,300 students in kindergarten through high school, and the Japanese school established the program to allow an exchange of cultures in 1988. The Japanese students travel to Maryland every spring, before their new school term begins. They left for home Saturday. McDonogh students visit every other summer.

Seven Japanese girls, one boy and two teachers arrived March 21. They stayed with McDonogh families, attended classes with their American peers, visited restaurants and shops, and absorbed American culture.

"It was a good decision not to stop a relationship that has gone on for more than 20 years," said Michio Yagi, a teacher who accompanied the students. "We realized how many care about us."

The Japanese students spoke of their experiences in Tokyo, far south of the quake's epicenter. They escaped much of the devastation, but the aftershocks have everyone wary. Many students said they felt the tremors and they fear radioactive fallout.

"We were so frightened," said Miharu Akagi, 17. "My mother's pictures and dishes were all broken. Because of the radiation, we cannot drink the water in our house."

Risa Ohkado, 17, said her country will have to conserve energy as it works on the recovery.

"We will have to use less electricity and air conditioning," she said. "We also should not buy a lot at a time so that everybody has things."

In the United States, they could focus on new experiences. Their host families accompanied them to Washington, Gettysburg and New York City.

"Everywhere we went, we heard kind words," Akagi said. "It seems like everyone is thinking about Japan."

That sentiment is even truer at their host school. McDonogh's faculty and students immediately asked their guests how to help the country devastated by a calamity that has claimed more than 12,000 lives. When the visitors suggested the Japanese Red Cross, the entire school went to work to raise funds.

"Charity and service should not be divided by borders," said freshman Christian Nakazawa, who has family ties to Japan.

The school has been collecting donations and organizing fundraisers, including bake sales, fun runs and even a beauty contest spoof, whose winner named the Red Cross as the beneficiary. The school organized Japanese awareness events throughout the day Friday, encouraged everyone to dress in red and white, the colors of the Japanese flag, and donated the proceeds from lunch sales. To date, McDonogh has raised $10,250 and will continue its efforts.

"We have the whole school involved and participating in some way," said senior Sam Riehl. "This is not just about raising money. We want to raise awareness, too."

Tori Loughborough, an eighth-grader who organized the middle-school effort, said, "It's not about how much we raise. It's about doing something."

Maryland public schools launched a statewide fundraising effort Friday to assist Japan in its recovery efforts. The Maryland Kids Care Campaign: Operation Japan, in partnership with the state's Red Cross chapter, asks the state's 1,500 schools to collect pennies to aid victims of the disaster during a campaign that runs through May 13.

McDonogh definitely has a head start with its $10,250 and counting, but all that effort came naturally from a school that has long-established connections to Japan.

The past two weeks were not all about fundraising. The visiting students attended classes and events on the campus. Yuusuke Kaneko, 17, is usually in a class of more than 30 at his high school. He marveled at McDonogh's small class sizes, where, he said, "It is easy for students to take part."

The trip was a chance for him to renew his friendship with junior Daniel Kershner, who had stayed with the Kaneko family during a summer exchange.

"His family was really interested in what I had to say about my culture," Kershner said. "That same thing carried over to my house. We are learning each other's traditions."

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