By Reina Strauss, Harumi Koga and Saori Konishi
Alternative Spring Break is a service learning program for Soka students to travel and learn about a variety of human issues and engage and serve communities during spring break. This past year, students participating in ASB went to Houston, Texas to aid in disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Hurricane Harvey displaced more than 30,000 people and prompted more than 17,000 rescues. The students that participated in ASB spent their days rebuilding homes, distributing food and other essentials, and realizing that life beyond the immediate is worth exploring. The four pillars that guide the mission of ASB trips are: social justice, community engagement, environmental consciousness, and dialogue with local college students.
To best engage students in these pillars, the participants attend training meetings for five months before toward the trip in March. They also participate in a local service trip and conduct fundraisers several times.
Students reflected on the success of ASB in different ways. Haruka Kawasaki, class of 2020, who participated in the 2018 ASB trip, said, “ASB was meaningful and fun, but at the same time it was really painful.”Kawasaki continued, “It was painful, but that’s how you see the reality.”
ASB became a way for Kawasaki to reflect on his hometown of Tohoku, which was severely damaged by the huge earthquake and tsunami of 2011. He said, “The deeper reason I joined this program was that I wanted to do something related to disaster management because I am from Tohoku, Japan, and that area also experienced a huge disaster.” In the year of 2017, when Kawasaki decided to apply for ASB, there were a lot of disasters happening. “I thought I can do something to support those people who experienced disaster, that way I can do something meaningful for them, and also I can reflect on myself,” he said.
Even before ASB, Kawasaki strove to raise the awareness towards disaster relief through the Gutsy Sunflowers Project, which he established in 2017. During the devastating time after the earthquake in Tohoku, one sunflower miraculously bloomed among the debris, which was later called the “Gutsy Sunflower” and it became a symbol of hope and resilience in Tohoku. “When we traveled to Houston, Texas, I decided to bring the seeds with me to give hope to people who experienced Hurricane Harvey,” Kawasaki said. However, it was not an easy task for him to do so as he was not the one who suffered from the earthquake as he was studying in Osaka at that time. However, he mustered the courage to start talking about Tohoku to one of the house owners, and the owner suggested that they plant the seeds together. A chain reaction of hope sparked from that moment.
People he shared the seeds with shared them with their friends, and the seeds spread. “All of the meetings with people gave me hope. I was able to encourage someone, and because of it, that person also can encourage someone else,” Kawasaki said. At the end of the interview, Haruka shared his next vision. “Now I want to use Gutsy Sunflowers to connect our community in Aliso Viejo.” He told us he is working on creating a community opportunity for social interaction in Aliso Viejo.
Trâm Vũ from the class of 2021 had a prior experience with volunteer activity in high school and applied to ASB hoping to continue her passion of contributing to society. Meeting with one woman, in particular, was especially memorable for Vũ to realize the influence of her contribution. The woman was an owner of the house that Soka students tried to rebuild. While initiating their service, Vũ and other members found that the woman’s husband passed away just a week before their visit. The woman shared her honest feelings with the students that she struggles with depression. Loss of a beloved life partner is painful, but what was more painful was that Hurricane Harvey destroyed their house, which was filled with precious memories of their love. Soka students worked to return the house as beautiful as it used to be, when the woman and her husband lived together. “When we did volunteer work, each house owner shared their personal experience with us, and this made us want to help more,” Vũ said.
Taichi Tsujikawa, class of 2020 also gained important knowledge from interaction with local community members. One man he met during the trip shared his same passion in Haka, a traditional dance originating from New Zealand. Tsujikawa’s involvement in Haka at Soka became a bridge to connect people in an unexpected way. Tsujikawa said, “ASB is not something where we just volunteer, it is more about being in the community and knowing what is going on in the community.” Based on this experience, he said that he became more aware of being a part of a community. After ASB, he started trying to meet and learn more about people around him.
The ASB program also changes every year to mirror the needs of the community, so you will get a fresh event every time. After a short application process, you can be accepted into this amazing program that promises something for everyone. In the interview, three participants from last year’s program shared their unique interpretation of the ASB program. Some of them shared crucial learning, which keeps them motivated even after the program, and others told a story of overcoming conflict as a group during the trip. Despite the variety of reflections, there was one thing all interviewees strongly said in a breath: You should definitely join ASB if you want to learn something meaningful.