March 17, 2011

Colby students pitch in

Taro Funabashi, raised in Tokyo, helps organize local fundraiser

By Leslie Bridgers
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE -- Growing up in Tokyo, Taro Funabashi couldn't help but consider that a major earthquake may someday shake up his world. His mother made sure of it.

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LOCAL HELP: On Wednesday Colby College students from left, Taro Funabashi, Hillary Sapanski, and Kimi Kossler sell raffle tickets on campus to raise money for victims of the earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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Funabashi, a Colby College junior, said he wasn't allowed to close the door of his bedroom at night, because his mother feared a quake would slant the door frame, trapping him inside.

There were bars across the book shelves in his home and latches on the cabinets to keep plates and glassware from smashing to the ground.

"I'm not sure, but she told me she got a pickax," Funabashi said about his mother's most recent preparatory purchase.

Before the magnitude-9 temblor hit the northeastern coast of Japan on Friday, Funabashi had already gotten an e-mail from his mother about a preceding, smaller earthquake. She was fine, she told him, but he stayed up and monitored the situation anyway. Soon, disaster struck.

Within the next 24 hours, Funabashi, his classmate Kimi Kossler and her roommate Hillary Sapanski began organizing a major fundraising event, collected gift certificates for a raffle and researched groups that were most in need of money. They haven't stopped since.

"They're incredibly well-organized," said Ankeney Weitz, chair of Colby's East Asian studies department.

Though Weitz said she's impressed by how quickly the students took action in helping victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, she isn't surprised. All three take classes in East Asian studies and have already demonstrated their devotion to that part of the world through their work to spread its culture in the Waterville community, she said.

A grant through the Freeman Foundation has enabled the Colby students to teach local children and teenagers about East Asia through events at schools, the Waterville Public Library and the Alfond Youth Center.

Funabashi, Kossler and Sapanski were instrumental in organizing East Asia Day at Colby on March 5, when Maine high school students studying Japanese and Chinese came to the Waterville campus to make sushi, listen to Taiko drumming and learn about martial arts.

The college students said their momentum from that project has fueled their current endeavor -- to raise at least $5,000 for the Japanese Red Cross.

"We're used to meeting two hours a night, so we just kept doing it," Funabashi said.

Kossler, who also has family in Tokyo, reached out to Funabashi and Sapanski as soon as she got out of class Friday to say she wanted to do something for the disaster victims and hoped they would help.

"Their immediate response was, 'Of course,'" Kossler said.

Since then, other student organizations and professors have offered to help. They plan to seek donations from alumni as well.

"We've gotten great feedback and support from the school in general," Kossler said.

Funabashi said it's one thing for people like him and Kossler, who have strong ties to Japan, to want to help, but the interest has come from far beyond that sector of the Colby community.

"For people with little or no connection to Japan to be so involved," he said, "it's been so great to see."

Sapanski said their effort will culminate with an event in April, where they'll draw raffle prizes and sell white wristbands with "Colby Loves Japan" written in red. In the meantime, they'll have a table set up in the Pugh Center where people can buy raffle tickets or fold origami paper cranes, which symbolize hope in Japan.

As news of a nuclear crisis paints an increasingly dire picture of the disaster, the students said, they expect an even greater outpouring of support from the college community.

"It's not a Third World country," Sapanski said, "but they do need aid."

Still, Kossler said, the students know they'll never be able to do enough.

"I wish I could literally leave school and get on a plane. We all do," she said. By raising money, Kossler said, they're trying to do "the next best thing."

Leslie Bridgers -- 861-9252

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