Six months after one of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded rattled Japan in March of 2011, two Soldotna men were among the countless volunteers who felt a calling to help rebuild the shattered country.
Lucas Petersen and Taylor Jackson spent four weeks in Japan helping put the pieces back together one home at a time. They returned to Soldotna a couple of days before Christmas with a first-person glimpse of the damage that tore the country apart.
“The devastation — you can only really get it when you’re there,” Jackson said. “Whole cities are nothing but cement foundations, just nothing.
“To see peoples’ lives just being ripped apart, it makes you, for one, count your blessings and two — we’re here on this earth to help people out and give to others.”
The March quake was responsible for more than 15,000 deaths and over 125,000 destroyed buildings, according to a report published by the National Police Agency of Japan.
Petersen, 28, and Jackson, 21, dubbed themselves the “Soldotna Boys” on their application for Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief organization that provides “food, medicine, and other assistance in the Name of Jesus Christ.”
In the “Soldotna Boys’” case, other assistance meant being put on construction crews in the Miyagi prefecture. The area was victim to a 10-meter high tsunami caused by the earthquake, according to U.S. Geological Survey. Water swept through the city of Kesennuma, which is home to more than 70,000 people and where Petersen and Jackson were working. Forty minutes south, in a town called Sumita, is where the Samaritan’s Purse temporary base camp was set up while a base in Kesennuma was being constructed.
“It actually had four military style tents put on a baseball field,” Petersen said. “It was the nearest place where they could have an area where they could have a base camp.”
The Kesennuma base known as the Hope Center housed volunteers and provided locals a community center, of sorts. The center hosted lunches, concerts and also gave residents a place to have questions about their housing situation answered.
“It really was a hope center in all aspects of it,” Jackson said.
The two men could quickly see the effects of not only their work, but the organization’s work as a whole. The men said interactions with locals who doubled as interpreters solidified the daily efforts, since the Japanese culture is known for being more reserved.
“They would say to us that, ‘Whether we show it or not,’ it meant a lot that we were there helping,” Petersen said.
Getting to know the homeowners they were helping was a special part of the process, the men said.
“The last house I worked on, I had an 80-plus-year-old homeowner,” Petersen said. “It was great to build a relationship even though we had a language barrier. But they were very appreciative of what we were doing and knew we came a long way just to help them.”
Many of the homeowners had trouble with the fact the volunteers didn’t want anything in return, Petersen said.
“The Japanese people don’t normally let outsiders help them,” Jackson said. “But the tsunami was so devastating that they actually are. They were very curious as to why we were there.”
One of the adjustments the construction crews had to make was to acclimate themselves to the Japanese way of building.
“The way they do things is very precise, very tight, very meticulous,” Petersen said. “So things do take a lot more time ... everything needed to be really nice and tight.”
The style of building made for a difficult mix of quickness and precision.
“You’re trying to help out as many people as you can but you’re also trying to do a good job and do it to the Japanese standard,” Petersen said.
After a house was finished, there was a dedication ceremony where a local pastor would honor the house with a sermon.
“Everybody who worked on the house was at the dedication, so that was really cool to top it off with that,” Jackson said.
The four weeks flew by, Jackson said. Just as soon as they would get to know the homeowners, “you gotta go,” he said. The work and friendships forged left a lasting impression on both men.
“Everybody’s over there with the same heart and same mind,” Jackson said. “So you make friends immediately.”
The two men said the experience was a way for them to share their beliefs and cater to those who require assistance.
“That’s one of the reasons why we were there too,” Petersen said. “We’re called to help and serve those that are in need.”
Jackson said anyone that has the means to go on a mission trip, should take advantage of the opportunity.
“It’ll change your life,” he said.