Riverside plans long-term relief effort for Japanese sister city Sendai

Riverside businessman Ted Honcharik is on a solo mission distributing free fuel to residents of Japan’s battered northeast coast.
Riverside businessman Ted Honcharik is on a solo mission distributing free fuel to residents of Japan’s battered northeast coast. Photo courtesy Fuel Relief Fund

Riverside’s Martin Luther King High School marching band will play a benefit concert Friday to raise quake relief money for Japan.

The fundraiser is the latest relief effort by the City of Riverside – the sister city of quake-shattered Sendai on Japan’s northeast coast.

Another Inland city, San Bernardino, is raising money for its sister city – Tachikawa, west of Tokyo. It was shaken but undamaged in the quake – and is now a hub for medical supplies.

Riverside struck up a friendship with Sendai 60 years ago when James Halverson, a Korean War veteran, was in the city’s U.S. military hospital.

"And on Mother’s Day in 1951, some kindly Japanese women came to give Mother’s Day cards," says Riverside's director of international relations Lalit Acharya. "And that touched James Halverson and touched his mother Jessie Halverson even more."

The Halversons established a scholarship for Japanese exchange students. That led to a sister city relationship.

These days, there’s a free flow of students and research between UC Riverside and Sendai’s Tohoku University. Sendai officials planted a Japanese garden near Riverside City Hall three years ago.

"Here’s a New York Times story," says Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge, "and you can see where Sendai is, and the red is the tsunami. What was in its path was devastated."

Loveridge leans across his desk at city hall. It’s stacked with articles about the Japan quake damage, a letter from Sendai mayor Emiko Okuyama – and notes from a Riverside disaster aid meeting.

"What it means to be a sister city is that in times of duress, you lend help, lend your hand, you support more than simply sending a letter and your expression of dismay and condolences. You need to step up – and that’s what we’re doing."

Riverside has contributed $100,000 in city money. It’s collected $300,000 in donations.

"We are part of a family," says Acharya. "This is more than just exchanging delegations. This is really tying our communities together in multiple ways. Should one of us be in trouble, the other would come to our assistance."

Earlier this week, UC Riverside students sold paper cranes for a dollar apiece to raise disaster aid money. They unfurled a bright gold banner beneath the campus bell tower.

English professor Reiko Sato says it’s for messages to Tohoku University. "What we do is ask the student to write a message to the student, and professor to write the message to the professor at Tohoku University to cheer them up. They could not start the semester because of the earthquake."

UC Riverside officials are offering places on campus for Tohoku students who can’t finish their studies because of the disaster. They’ll feel right at home – about 140 Japanese students are enrolled at UCR, like 21-year-old Akiko Kosaka.

"There were actually houses next to my house [that] it destroyed," says Kosaka, "so it means tsunami came near my house."

After the quake, Japanese TV showed Kosaka’s older sister on the balcony of the family home holding a sign, amid the ruin.

“What’s written on your sign?” asks the reporter. “To my little sister in America,” she shouts. “We are all safe.”

"I thought she’s very tired and depressed," says Akiko Kosaka," but she tries to stay strong for my family. So I am very proud of her."

UC Riverside officials urged the Japanese students to stay in the U.S. for now. But one Riverside man headed straight to the disaster zone.

"I’m walking down some stairs about six flights. If I lose you, just call me back," says Ted Honcharik. "I’m in Ishinomaki, just northeast of Sendai."

Honcharik runs a fuel distribution business in Riverside. He also heads a nonprofit called the Fuel Relief Fund that drops into a disaster zone, buys heating fuel or gasoline – and then delivers it to people for free.

Honcharik arrived in Japan two weeks ago. He’s working alone – and he’s been sleeping on the tiled floor of Sendai City Hall.

"I’ve had family go through Hurricane Andrew in Florida – I grew up there, know what it’s like to be without power for three, four months, lost loved ones and living in horrible conditions," says Honcharik. "I’m fortunate enough that I’ve got a good partner who can run the business while we try to give back."

Riverside aims to raise a million dollars for disaster relief in the coming weeks. It also plans to lend a hand with reconstruction of its shattered sister city of Sendai.

The Sendai quake relief benefit concert in Riverside starts at 7 p.m. Friday at Grove Community Church.

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