The One Who Never Stops: An Interview With Angela Ortiz

O.G.A. for Aid is a non-profit organization in Minamisanriku, a town devastated by the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku. I first met Angela Ortiz, 25-year-old director of Administration for O.G.A. for Aid, a couple of years ago when she began organizing 3.11 volunteer and fundraising events here in Tokyo. Angela is sometimes described as the Lara Croft of Tohoku relief work and it's easy to see why: she's attractive, smart, and determined, the perfect person to play a key role in running one of the most active Tohoku NPOs. She's an inspiring example of what a young person can do to make a difference.

I interviewed Angela to learn more about her amazing work.

How did you first come to Japan?

I moved to Japan with my family when I was 5-years-old. My parents were teachers, and we lived near Tokyo for 10 years before they opened an international preschool/kindergarten up in Aomori.

I love it here in Aomori now, but I was really devastated at the time because leaving all of my friends down in the big city, Tokyo, was really hard! I never imagined that 10 years later, I would be going into the smallest and most remote villages of traditional Japan to deliver food and supplies.

How did you get involved in Tohoku relief work?

My siblings, parents, and friends started a volunteer initiative immediately after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. We all were raised in Japan and felt we had to do something to help.

When I saw the TV footage, I knew right away that our family would be doing something. In the Kobe earthquake (1995), they all went to volunteer but I was too young. This time, when I heard that my father was going to Tohoku, I thought, "Hell yes, I'm there. Let's do it!"

What are the main challenges you face as a foreigner doing relief work here?

To be honest, aside from it being difficult to understand the rural accents, I find being a foreigner a benefit rather than a detriment. Local residents are always impressed and moved that non-Japanese people are helping out. They accept our "foreign" ways with a smile -- and sometimes a sigh -- but usually are happy to chat. They love being able to explain the great things about their local culture to us "uncultured" folks! (laughs)

What are the most pressing needs in your region right now?

The ongoing "limbo" is taking its toll on residents and volunteers alike. The lack of infrastructure and the overwhelming workload is a huge weight on everybody, and this contributes to the low morale of residents.

Residents need a reason to stay. Jobs are needed because they compel adults to stay in the region and develop the commerce again. And without business opportunities, the young will go elsewhere to build their livelihoods. Right now, the only jobs for young people are in convenience stores. These sorts of jobs are not enough to keep most young people in the area. And when the young people leave, the communities die.

What are some common misconceptions about relief work in Tohoku?

First: that it's nearing completion. In fact, it will be years before many of the communities are rebuilt. More than 300,000 people are still living in "temporary" houses and are trying to relocate to more permanent locations.

Second: that hands-on, labor-intensive work is the only way to help. 
In fact, there is still a huge need for relief workers, but not those who are digging rubble and removing mud from the houses. Now relief is more about helping in "soft-recovery" -- bringing in ideas and emotional or cultural support. Sometimes just talking to people, playing with kids, giving business advice, are also important ways of "doing relief work."

If people want to get involved in relief work, how should they do it?

Focused long-term support is far more effective than short spurts of effort all over the place. Volunteers are connectors, and play a valuable role in the support system of families, towns, NPOs (like us), and other associations that focus on humanitarian activities. If you can establish a connection in your school or social group, and keep it going to raise money and exchange ideas, that's great. Establishing exchange -- of ideas and of people -- helps both local residents here in Tohoku and in your own community.

I'd say to do research, find a cause close to your heart or passion, and contact people who are doing something similar. It is always good to see and visit the organization in person if you can, but you can also work through other groups. It is also beneficial to do hands-on volunteering if possible and then use your imagination to find ways in which to support the cause or group.

Find a local NPO that really knows the situation on the ground. What we do is use local knowledge and local networks to support residents in reestablishing activities that they already were doing, but helping them do them better. For example, one of our projects involves combining traditional farming practices with more recent technology.

Do you plan to do this for the rest of your life?

Yes. After all of this, I cannot imagine walking away. I plan to be involved in relief and aid work for the rest of my life. I hope to build something that will be a small, fast-response, international organization. I want it to be focused on disaster situations with the goal of project development for the community as well as general economic support. We have a long way to go, but I doubt anyone would have thought that we could have gotten as far as we have. We need to keep going.