Students from Crescent City and Rikuzentakata, Japan, are being brought together by a small, barnacle-covered boat that traveled across the Pacific Ocean for two years after it was swept away by the devastating March 2011 tsunami that sent waves to North Coast shores.
"It definitely feels amazing to be able to go to Japan and meet the students face to face," said John Steven, a junior at Del Norte High School who helped clean up the 21-foot vessel. "It was awesome that we got to help restore and return the boat in the first place, and meeting the kids in the school that the boat belonged to, it's just icing on the cake. I'm stoked."
The six students are scheduled to leave today for Japan.
Now a symbol of hope for Rikuzentakata, a once prosperous seaside town of 24,000 that was almost washed away by waves reaching heights of 62 feet, the panga boat became the first documented piece of tsunami debris to reach California's shores after it was found on a beach south of Crescent City last April.
Joyce Ruiz, a Del Norte High School teacher who supervised the restoration project and helped coordinate the trip, said she thinks the people of Rikuzentakata were overjoyed when the boat was returned to them in September.
"It's now in a museum there as a symbol of hope that there are people who care about them," Ruiz said. "Part of the reason students did the project was to give those in Japan an overall optimistic view of life."
Amya Miller, director of global public relations for Rikuzentakata, said she set up correspondence between the principals of each high school after the boat washed up, which is how the idea for the trip emerged. The city lost nearly 2,000 residents, and more than 3,300 buildings were completely or partially destroyed.
"The community in Rikuzentakata is still very much in mourning, and stories that provide hope help give people here energy and sustenance," Miller said. "The kids from Del Norte High School need to see the benefit of what they did, and the Japanese kids want to see who is on the other end of taking this initiative to clean up the boat and send it back to the community. The school is buzzing about what high schoolers from the U.S. are like."
The Del Norte High students raised some money for the trip, and the rest was provided by TOMODACHI's Fund for Exchanges.
Ruiz, the students, and a few chaperones are going to Tokyo first before traveling to Rikuzentakata to see the boat and meet the local high school students and mayor. After returning to Tokyo, they hope to meet with U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, Ruiz said.
"The kids said, 'Wow, this is a big deal,'" Ruiz said. "I said, 'Yes, you're representing the U.S.' Some of the Japanese people may never meet another U.S. citizen, so I told the kids their impressions will last. Hopefully, both groups of students can continue relationships and cultural exchanges as they get older."
Del Norte Sheriff's Office Cmdr. Bill Steven will be joining his son as one of the trip's chaperones.
"When you're just a teenager, this kind of trip is quite the thing to experience," Bill Steven said. "I hope it helps to shape John's young adult life."
Ruiz said she is so pleased for the students, and very humbled to be able to go to Japan to represent their high school and city.
"It's amazing," Ruiz said.
Jillian Singh can be reached at 441-0509 or Jsingh@times-standard.com