For children in Japan who lost their homes and -- in many cases -- family members to the devastating earthquake and tsunami one year ago, it was the little things that made a huge difference.
"One of my clients, the Warm Buddy Company in North Vancouver, donated a bunch of stuffed toys for the children after the quake," said Manabu Ogawa, a former firefighter and personal trainer in North Vancouver who joined in Japanese rescue efforts last year.
"When I brought these to the shelter in Miyagi prefecture, this little girl (pictured above) was absolutely thrilled: she'd just lost all her toys to the tsunami. When she started grabbing all the toys she could, her dad pulled her away and told her to share them with the other kids."
She relented, giving up the teddy bear for her friend, while keeping her arm around a pink plush toy -- her first real toy since the earthquake.
Children's smiles pave the way to recovery
Ogawa is a member of the Japan Police and Fire Sports Federation, a non-government organization that aids disaster victims around the world. He left to work in Japan again on Thursday to help in the ongoing recovery efforts, but remembers vividly how gifts he brought from Vancouver helped victims after the earthquake.
After his rescue operations ended for the day, Ogawa sat with the children in shelters and gave them pins from North Vancouver, donated by North Vancouver-Lonsdale MLA Naomi Yamamoto.
"When I first saw them, the kids weren't smiling at all. So much had happened. But when I gave them all pins, told them I'd come to visit from Canada, their faces brightened up," Ogawa recounted.
A boy receives a North Vancouver pin from Ogawa.
The pins and plush toys were small souvenirs from Canada, but they helped lift the spirits of the young earthquake victims.
"People often told me that the kids are fortunately too small to grasp the full extent of what happened," Ogawa said, after his visit to the disaster areas. "But I'm a father, too, and I can sense that they know what's going on. And they're also suffering."
Ogawa said that the gifts to young children ultimately helped the community as a whole in their recovery efforts.
"When the children smile, the adults around them naturally begin smiling along," Ogawa said. "I talked to them a bit in English, and they became really excited, saying they also wanted to travel to Canada one day. They're looking to the future."
With the one-year anniversary, the memory of the earthquake may feel distant to some people, but Ogawa feels there is still much work to be done.
"Now is when the real recovery is happening: not just for the earthquake victims in Japan, but also Haiti, and other parts of the world. They're all still trying to recover, so I hope that people don't forget about them."