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Ken Urashima

2011/11/23 08:05 Featured Volunteers, Shine On! Smile Ambassador

Smile Ambassador Program Coordinator Keiko Fukumoto, Ken-san and his wife in front of the Urashima family home

By Guy Totaro

As the Tyler Foundation’s Smile Ambassador, I have met all kinds of interesting people in North-eastern Japan. Tohoku people are kind, generous, open and approachable. They are also very strong and their resilience is truly inspirational.

The educational institutions which most need our brand of laughter therapy there, have been under immense pressure since the March 11th catastrophe. Dedicated administrators and teachers throughout the region are taking care of many effected children who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, working diligently to get their educational curriculum back on track while at the same time dealing with their own issues as victims. Because of this, scheduling our Smile Ambassador visits in the Tohoku schools was quite a challenge in the beginning. Cold calling schools directly from Tokyo was part of our initial approach and although the Tyler Foundation is well know amongst the NPOs in Japan, we are not yet a household name. That, and in the months immediately following the disaster the region was overwhelmed by offers of assistance. We knew our programs were an essential part of the relief effort, but we needed an effective way to get our foot in the door.

In June we were based out of an old school turned community center near the mountain town of Sumita, which is 25 min inland from the heavily damaged industrial fishing town of Ofunato. After a day of shows and workshops with kids throughout South-Eastern Iwate, we would often get cleaned up at a small onsen near our base camp. On one such day I found myself in the changing room with a Japanese man about my age. When he stepped on the scale to check his weight it played an oddly depressing digital rendition of the Beatle’s, “Yesterday”. At the same moment he and I made eye contact and not knowing what else to say in Japanese I asked, “Futotta?” (Gain some weight?). OK, I guess it’s a “you had to be there” kind of moment, but we both cracked up and it initiated a conversation. Neither of us had meshi handy, but I introduced myself as “Taira- Kikin no Niko Niko Taishi” and told him about our program. His seafood sales and processing company was totally destroyed by the tsunami. Although his house was heavily damaged, his family were all OK and were able to continue living on the 2nd floor.

Ken-san is the father of 2 young kids who go to school in the areas where we regularly visit and he was very impressed and intrigued with what we do. The program coordinator and I told him about our challenge of getting access to schools and he instantly offered to help us. The very next day we were having tea at the home of an influential city councilman. We had found exactly what we needed – a respected local liaison to champion our cause for us. From that point on, Ken-san proved to be an invaluable asset to the Smile Ambassador program. His belief in the power of the program drives him to open more opportunities for us. His name and personal reputation has opened doors that were previously closed and he has given us credibility with the local population. Ken-san has introduced us to dozens of schools and daycare centers enabling us to interact with thousands of kids. They trust us because they trust him.

Ken-san’s children are huge fans and his wife sometimes cooks delicious meals for us – making us feel at home when we are so far away from our own. Since that first awkward yet funny moment, Ken-san has accompanied us on almost every school visit – the poor guy has seen the show more times then anyone should have to but he’s always there in the back, smiling. Ken-san told me that he never imagined that he would ever have a foreigner as a friend. We in fact are more alike then not; we are both dads, husbands, small business owners trying to do the right thing at a difficult time. Over the past 7 months he’s grown to be a dear personal friend of mine and an indispensable asset to the Tyler Foundation’s Smile Ambassador Program. Smiles know no boarders and laughter is good medicine for kids of all ages.