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A new indoor playground at a Catholic school in earthquake-ravaged Fukushima is being hailed by local residents as a “beacon of hope for the region’s recovery.”
Our Lady of Sakura Kindergarten, operated by the Congregation of Notre Dame, was so badly damaged in the March 2011 earthquake that the religious community has spent the past two years rebuilding the school.
“Anyone can see that Fukushima children’s athletic and physical abilities have declined since they lost the chance to play outdoors,” said Notre Dame Sister Kayoko Shibata. “In order to counteract this a little, we built an indoor playground.”
The sister said that as the new building neared completion local residents would stop by with words of encouragement, such as “this is a beacon of hope for the recovery of Fukushima.
“And with the new strength those words have brought, we aim to raise young people who will contribute to that recovery,” she said.
The building was officially dedicated in early September during a ceremony officiated by Bishop Martin Tetsuo Hiraga of Sendai.
After being forced to evacuate their school following the earthquake, the sisters rented part of a building from a neighboring elementary school.
The building’s damage wasn’t the only issue faced by the sisters. The number of students enrolled dropped sharply as people fled the area to avoid radiation exposure.
In the 30 months since the disaster, the school has directed a great deal of energy towards repeated decontamination procedures along with the restoration of the damaged building.
The indoor playground, named 'The Friendship Space,' is located inside the restored building, protecting it from any ambient radiation. It uses uncontaminated dirt brought 130 kms from Niigata Prefecture and includes swings, a sandbox, a slide and exercise bars.
The congregation said the playground will be available to all the community’s children, not just those who attend the school. It represents the sisters’ latest efforts to help the city’s residents rebuild their lives.
In the earthquake’s aftermath, the sisters quickly offered to take in children orphaned in the disaster. In the weeks that followed, the sisters waived tuition for affected families with children enrolled in their network of Fukushima City schools, even providing living expenses to those in need. Some 12 students are still being served by this program.
The congregation also implemented training for volunteers to counsel those still suffering from the trauma caused by the earthquake, tsunami and radiation spill. These “intent listening” services have grown in prominence in the region as support workers switch from tending to the physical needs of those affected to psychological and spiritual care.