Greensburg resident brings hope
to Japan on tsunami anniversary
By DAVID MYERS
Southwest Kansas Register
When Matt Deighton of Greensburg boarded a plane for Japan, he could not have begun to imagine the difference he would make to the nation still reeling from a tsunami that claimed more than 19,000 lives, with hundreds still missing.
What brought him to Japan begins with a five-year-old boy named Evan.
“In 2003, Evan walked up to his dad sitting in his upper Manhattan office and said, ‘Dad, I want to send my toys out to those kids in the wildfires of California. They came to New York and helped us.’ This was after fires had killed 15 people and burned hundreds of homes in California.
“In two weeks,” Deighton said, “they were driving the largest U-Haul truck available across country. And on the side of it the truck it read, ‘New York Says Thank you.’” Evan’s father, Jeff Parness, began “New York Says Thank You,” which organizes local and New York volunteers to visit areas on the anniversary of 9-11 that have been affected by severe weather or man-made atrocities, so that they can lend aid and effectively say “Thank You” to a nation that helped New York during its time of crisis.
Greensburg was one of those places.
“America, we will never forget what you did for us in our time of need,” Parness says to those his organization helps. “We’re not here because of what happened on 9/11; we’re here because of what happened on 9/12.”
In Greensburg, Parness met Deighton, who had lost his home in the 2007 tornado, and who, as a volunteer coordinator was helping families rebuild their lives. Parness told Deighton about a family they assisted the previous year in Texas who wanted to “pay it forward,” by creating more than 200 painted wooden stars and sending them to Greensburg.
The day after the two met, Deighton, Parness, and two New York firefighters went to the makeshift Greensburg School, spoke to one of the classes, and had some of the children write their emotions on the stars. The stars were then placed around the town, which at the time was still little more than rubble.
“Greensburg became the first town to take part in the ‘Stars of Hope’ program,” Deighton said. “Stars of Hope” became on offshoot of “New York Says Thank You,” and allows children to take part in the healing.
“It let the parents know that someone outside their zone of disaster cared,” Deighton said. “It showed that people from New York were trying to pay it forward from the worst man-made disaster on our soil -- and suddenly a healing process kicked in.”
ON TO JAPAN
“Too bad we weren’t in Japan for the tsunami anniversary,” Deighton told Parness by phone one day.
“The anniversary hasn’t happened yet,” Parness replied. “Get on the internet and look into tickets”
Once in Japan just days later -- all alone except for videographer Scott Rettburg of Los Angeles -- Deighton would become the face of America at the commemoration, helping to heal an ailing nation.
It was 11:30 p.m. when Deighton and Rettburg arrived in Japan; it was sleeting, and Deighton was unable to contact his guide, who had given him an incorrect phone number.
And that’s when the miracles started happening.
It would be nearly five hours before the two men would eventually make it to Kesennuma, where they saw the terrible devastation.
“We were in the heart of the city,” Dighton said. “They lost more than 7,400 people. All that was left were the foundations of houses and buildings. I saw one man who had found his car. It was very emotional for him. People were laying flowers where they lost loved ones.”
At the hotel they met an Associated Press reporter who spoke perfect English.
“I explained what we were doing there, and she started to cry. ‘You came all the way across the globe for this,’ she said.”
But without their guide, the two were at a loss as to how to proceed. It was then that they saw school children getting off of a bus. “I told the AP reporter, ‘I need 10 of those kids so I can share my Greensburg story.’”
“It turns out it was a PTA event,” Deighton said with a smile. “The kids just graduated the eighth grade, and were having a party in the hotel. [The reporter] told me that the parents wanted me to be a special guest and help judge the dance contest,” Deighton said with a laugh.
“Eventually 10 little girls came up and sat down. I had a picture book of Greensburg, and the wooden stars from Greensburg for them to write their emotions on. One little girl started writing, and then she began to cry.
“‘She doesn’t understand why you came all the way around the world,’ the reporter told me. The girl had lost everything. I told her that so did I. She took the star and wrote ‘Front’. The reporter told me that it means to stand tall and face your situation and pray.
“It took a 13-year-old to knock a 49-year-old in the kneecaps.”
The next day, wondering if they had fulfilled their purpose in Japan -- to share the Stars of Hope -- the two Americans looked around the devastated city, taking photos. They couldn’t have begun to imagine what was in store for them.
“Scott met and introduced me to Kengi (pronounced Ken-G), who offered to give us a ride to the [tsunami] commemoration ceremony at a university,” Deighton said.
Some 5,000 people filled a large auditorium. A total of 7,400 carnations represented each life lost in Kesennuma. Dignitaries filled several front seats. Police cadets lined the aisles. And Deighton and Rettburg stood on an upper level with other reporters, looking down in stunned wonder.
“After the prime minister and several dignitaries spoke, a 14-year-old girl stood up. She had lost her entire family; 13 or 14 people. Everybody was weeping, including the police.”
Deighton asked Kengi if he could place his star which read “Hope” outside the main door, on the ground or in a tree, so people could see it as they exited. Instead, Kengi led Deighton to the front of the large gathering, where Deighton, along with hundreds of others, placed a carnation – and in his case, the Star of Hope -- on a large table.
“As I came back across the stage, there are people all around, including the governor or regional vice president; they were bowing to everyone. But when they saw me, they bowed deep. You could feel it. I was on cloud 75-and-a-half.
“When it was finished, Kengi said, ‘You just helped heal the country.’” Clearly overwhelmed, Deighton admitted he had a difficult time realizing what had just occurred.
There would be more miracles. Kengi, it seemed, worked in a facility for developmentally disabled children and adults, similar to Arrowhead West. Deighton and Rettburg were taken there the following day where they met “Micha,” a young girl with autism who enjoyed drawing. Her drawings so represented the suffering and healing after the tsunami, that they were placed in a book – which begins and ends with a smile stretched across a little girl’s face.
There were the funny moments during the trip, such as when a small restaurant owner, after he heard where Deighton was from, responded, “Dodge City! Beef!” On the bus trip back to Tokyo, Deighton gave coins collected from the Big Well in Greensburg to children on the bus. Googling information on their phones, the youngsters started shouting, “Big Well! Dorothy! Toto!”
“The whole purpose of the trip was to show awareness of what the ‘Stars of Hope’ is all about, then to take it to New York, find some sponsors, take more Americans back, and do a ‘2,000 Stars of Hope,’” Deighton said.
“I learned so much in such a little amount of time. It was overwhelming to be there. It’s about opening up your heart and giving ... and prayer -- number one. But if you can actually put your foot on their soil, that makes a big difference.”
For more information, go to www.mdeighton.com, or, to view the award-winning movie, “New York Says Thank You” on line, which includes footage of Deighton serving the organization at different sites, go to http://main.aol.com/2011/09/02/911-anniversary_n_946422.html. A documentary of his trip to Japan is currently in the works.