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Nonprofit's cafe serves up healing for tsunami survivors

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Miko Onodera is trying to provide a different type of recovery for her neighbors in the tsunami-battered city of Kesennuma: emotional healing. 

Onodera, 41, who runs a nonprofit focused on helping the disabled, is now the maître d of a newly opened café, which she is hoping can in small ways help survivors get over the psychic scars left by the March 11 disaster.

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

A child and his mother attend a “kids from the past” gathering at the “Cha No Ki Café” (Tea Tree Café) in Kesennuma, Japan. Miko Onodera, who runs the nonprofit that operates the cafe, says that her mission is to help the people of the tsunami-devastated city recover emotionally.

She sees that as the next phase in getting her hometown back to normal.

Onodera said she has so far seen three phases of recovery in the nearly three months since the tsunami generated by a massive 9.0 earthquake offshore roared into Kesennuma and other coastal communities in northeast Japan. First was the immediate need for food and shelter, then the survivors needed clothing, then the focus turned to replacing home supplies such as electrical appliances and cooking tools as the survivors moved into temporary public housing.

Naomi Ogata of Kesennuma brought her toddler and baby to the center because it is a safe place to play in the tsunami-ravaged town.

 “Now, we are in the fourth phase: to bring the community back, to make it vibrant again,” Onodera said.

Well before the tsunami struck, Onodera and her nonprofit, Network Orange, planned on opening “Cha No Ki Café” (Tea Tree Café) last week to provide work and a gathering spot for members of the disabled community. But the tsunami, which ran out of steam just short of the café, changed the complexion of the grand opening on June 2. 

“We are all hurt, suffering, so I hope this place will be a place to give hope to everybody,” she said.

Network Orange, which Onodera set up in 2002, held a “sit-down” comedy event, known as “rakugo,” for the opening, and Onodera plans to hold small concerts and lectures there, such as a talk by a novelist. On Wednesday, it hosted a “kids from the past” gathering for the elderly, many of whom were accompanied by kids and grandchildren, who played games while the older folks  chatted.

“This is a symbol of the reconstruction of Kesennuma city,” said Yumiko Onodera, a 59-year-old nutritionist who works with Network Orange, as she sat in the cafe with a friend. “It’s not a facility organized by the city or government official. But this is something that we, the ordinary people, created, so that’s why it’s important.”

“Knowing that there is a place for us, it helps,” added her friend, Kazuko Suzuki, 72.

After the towering waters smashed through Kesennuma and flooded two of the group’s offices, Onodera and her team sprang into action, locating the 27 disabled people in Network Orange’s network by going from “town to town, shelter to shelter.” They found them all living in shelters or with relatives, though one family initially opted to live in their car, since it was difficult for their handicapped child to live with others, Onodera said. Network Orange staff and volunteers then updated the group’s   blog, noting what supplies were needed, then distributed goods as they arrived. They also helped cook meals at the shelters.

Nearly 1,000 people died and another 511 remain missing from Kesennuma, a warren of hamlets nestled amid forests, where families of farmers and fishermen have plied their trades for centuries. Some people remain in temporary shelters, many crowded into school classrooms and gyms and others living in trailers.

Onodera said that the big shelters have held numerous events aimed at lifting the community’s spirits, but she said that people who aren’t living there were not invited, even though their lives undoubtedly also were touched in some way by the tsunami. The café helps fill that need, she said.

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

Miko Onodera

“There are people who want to be healed in smaller spaces, too. … So I think this space is the right size,” she said.

As the recovery unfolds – cleanup crews and excavators can be seen hard at work all around Kesennuma  –  Onodera said that nonprofits and medical professionals will have to remain focused on the emotional well-being of the tsunami survivors.

 “There are people who lost family, houses and even jobs,” she said. “They can’t see the future, they don’t have hope. So for them, what they need is an event or some activities where they can participate and have fun so that they can start having the will to live

 “We need to get our normal life back as soon as possible. That’s very important for us."