Orion: Ms.Ai

Story: NPO Kagayaku Nakama Challenged, Orion Co-Living Facility for the Disabled (Former name: Kokoro Saori)
Trainee: Ai (woman/ age 20 at the time/Intellectually challenged)
Staff: Ms. Kumai (participated in the interview to assist Ai)

On that day

Ai was at Orion in Ishinomaki city as usual and cooking stew in her training, when the huge earthquake hit.


Ms. Kumai: We contacted families of trainees through mobile phones. We were lucky to be able to talk to her mother on the phone. She was so happy to know that you were safe, wasn’t she?

Ai: Yes.

Ms. Kumai: Our (previous) facility was about thirty minutes on foot from her house. When the initial tremor calmed down, her father came through the debris to pick her up at the facility. He was the first family member of trainees who got there.

We were doing our cooking training at the time of the tremor. After the earthquake, we heated again rice and things that we were eating at the class. We didn’t have much problem about food.

Three days taking refuge

The building Orion used as a tenant was close to the sea and it was engulfed by huge tsunami. The trainees and the staff escaped to upper floor of the building and were all safe.

How many trainees were there at that time?

Kumai: Around eight including a boy who was a graduate from special-need school, and a sixth grade elementary school girl and her mother who were visiting us at that time. We stayed in the building (where the facility was located) for a week. All the staff members were there, by chance.

(After the initial tremor) We put everyone in our cars and were ready to move to another place, when one trainee said she wanted to use bathroom. We decided to go back into the building of the facility. However, the owner of the building, who lived nearby, invited us to use the bathroom of his house. A couple of staff members and the trainee went to his house.

That was when the tsunami came. Those staff members and the trainee stayed at that house until Sunday (March 11 was a Friday).

The house was newly built but its first floor was ruined by the tsunami. Staff members took their shoes off to go into the house because it was before the tsunami, and the tsunami ruined their shoes.

Ai’s bag

Ai has a very special treasure. It’s a large bag full of stuff such as her favorite manga books and stuffed animals.


Kumai: Please show her your bag Ai.

Ai: (hesitating) No! Until when that kind of thing…? (She went to look for it mumbling.)

Ms. Kumai: This is one thing that Ai never leaves without. Her father came to pick her up carrying her rubber boots and walking on top of roofs of houses because the streets were blocked with debris. As he said they would walk back the same way, I recommended not taking Ai’s belongings. It would take a lot of time to go through that path even though it was about half an hour away on foot in normal situation. However, the father insisted that Ai needed this bag, right?

Ai: Yes!

Spending nights at roadside rest area

Ai’s house was damaged by the tsunami on the first floor.


Kumai: After the disaster, former director of the facility and I visited Ai’s house. I asked if she was able to sleep on the second floor of the house. I was worried she may not have been able to sleep there. She was scared of aftershocks, and they went to a roadside rest area called Johbon no Sato at night and slept in their sedan car, I was told.

I talked with Shoshin Kai (another social welfare foundation) and asked them to provide a room for Ai and her family in their facility, which was authorized as evacuation center for the disabled (in which persons with disabilities and their families took refuge). Luckily, they had one room available.


What did you talk about in the car with your parents?

Ai: About people affected by the disaster, and so on.

Kumai: You were also cleaning.

Ai: Yes!

Kumai: She went home during the day and helped clean the house.

Living in 9 tatami mats single room

Difficult thing for the family at temporally housing was to live all four members together in a 9 tatami mats (about 15 square meters) single room.


Kumai: I heard that they moved to disaster recovery public housing in 2016. They had moved from Shoshinkai’s evacuation center for persons with disabilities to a temporally restoration housing for the disabled run by the same organization. They lived in that temporally housing until they moved to the more permanent public housing.

Her father worked as a caretaker of the temporally housing complex though now he has a different job. The fact that he worked very near to their house made the family feel very comfortable and secure, I think.


Did you help with house chores, Ai?

Ai: I helped with laundries and cleaning.


Did you find anything difficult at that time?

Ai: It was hard for me to use the vacuum cleaner.

Kumai: Ai and her sister used to have their own rooms. Her mother told me that it was difficult for the whole family members to live in the same room.


Did you hear anything about the life of Ai and the problems they had at the temporally housing?

Kumai: It seemed that they needed quite a lot effort to get close to people at the housing complex since it belonged to Shoshinkai, a different organization than ours, even though Ai’s father worked for the organization. Ai’s family had a neighbor at the complex who was a trainee at Orion, but beside from that they didn’t have much contact with people around them. So, they didn’t know their neighbors at the housing complex.

Hand massage

Through her father’s contact, Ai started to participate in different events at the community space of the housing complex.


Was there anything that was particularly helpful or good in the life at the temporally housing?

Kumai: They received emergency relief supplies. The housing complex had events such as mochi rice cake making. Her father also worked for those events at the venue near the housing.


What event did you like the most?

Ai: Things like hand massage.

Kumai: A person came to give hand massage at events.


How did you feel when you were given hand massage?

Ai: I felt very good and it had a nice aroma.

Kumai: I believe they had a lot of supports at the temporally restoration housing for the disabled as there were many persons with disabilities and their families. Your father was working hard for different events there, right?

Ai: Yes.

A place where people can visit everyday

As I see everybody getting older, it makes me feel that quite long time has passed since the disaster, even though at the same time it seems like a flash.


Were there any changes in the trainees like Ai or Shoko after the disaster?

Kumai: One thing is that members have changed, but more than that some trainees like Ai has started taking leadership. She was 20 years old and soon will become 26.

What the previous director and I tried to achieve was to make our facility a place where persons with disabilities, who otherwise stayed at their houses, could come every day.

Just before the disaster, we started to receive young ones who had recently graduated from special-needs schools. That made the group at our facility a good mixture of long timers and new comers. Most of our trainees suffer serious disabilities but they also grow quite well. For example, ones who used to have self-harming behaviors grew and started to take leadership roles.


These are changes that have been formed through group works, I guess.

Kumai: I remember some of them were always sleeping and not doing their tasks. We can’t tell how young people grow.