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Stratford Beacon Herald

Former Central student relays Japan's devastation


"I'm OK. I'm alive."

For Sae Watanabe's friends here, those were welcome words posted on her Facebook page shortly after the massive earthquake that rocked Japan last month.

The 18-year-old, who stayed in Stratford on an exchange during the 2009-10 school year and attended Stratford Central secondary school, was the guest speaker at a unique fundraiser over the weekend at Factory163, sharing her experiences of living in Japan in the aftermath of the devastating quake and tsunami.

More than 50 people turned out at the Stratford venue for Japan Relief event, which featured live music and a silent auction with dozens of donated items, raising some $2,400 to help with disaster recovery there.

Watanabe, who lives in Yokohama, a few hours away from where the earthquake hit the hardest, said the country is still picking up the pieces.

"Some people are still suffering every night, every day," she said, choosing her words carefully.

While she was luckily nowhere near the quake when it hit, she said she's seen the impact it has had on Japan.

Long lineups at grocery stores and gas stations are not uncommon, she said, and there's still uncertainty over the safety of the food and water supply as a result of potential damage to nuclear reactors there.

That uncertainty is especially difficult for those who were evacuated from their shattered neighbourhoods due to the quake, she said.

"They have to make new friends, make a new life, so it's hard for them," said Watanabe. "Many people are still missing."

But there's some hope.

"We are getting better," she said, expressing gratitude for relief efforts initiated in Canada and around the world. "It's so nice, and we appreciate it."

Mary-Lou Drown, Watanabe's "Canadian mother" who hosted her while she was in Stratford on her exchange, said she joined Facebook just to keep in touch and was relieved to learn that Watanabe was safe after the earthquake.

"We were all so worried," she said, noting that Watanabe "fit right in" and made a number of close friends at Central during her time in Stratford, all of whom were anxious to hear from her.

"She's such a wonderful person, such a giving person." said Drown.

So it was no surprise that she would agree to speak at the benefit Saturday night, said Drown.

Organizer Jennifer Zylstra said she was "extremely pleased" with the turnout Saturday night and grateful for the support of the community.

The money raised at the event will be split between the Canadian Red Cross Japan Earthquake/ Asia-Pacific Tsunami Appeal and the Rotary Japan 2011 Disaster Recovery Fund.