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Japan quake's youngest victims cope through play

By Paula Hancocks, CNN
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Play helps Japan's youngest victims cope
  • World Vision has created a "child-friendly space" for children
  • Gymnasium at Kamaishi elementary school used as makeshift home for hundreds
  • For one morning, it is turned into a venue for a belated graduation day
  • Principal credits tsunami drills for saving entire class

Tome, Japan (CNN) -- Children run across a playing field in a game of dodgeball, oblivious to the snow that fills the air along with their screams of laughter.

The unadulterated joy is heartening, considering the children and the location. The playing field is a school converted into a shelter in Minamisanriku, one of the worst places hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami which cost all the children here their homes, their possessions and -- in many cases -- family members. Thousands of people are still unaccounted for.

World Vision has created a "child-friendly space," a program that the organization has replicated around the world, for children to help each other. High school students volunteer to help pick teams for cops and robbers and teach children soccer skills.

The effort goes a long way.

Misato Oyama, 11, lost her grandfather in the tsunami. "I am scared that another big tsunami will come and destroy another part of my city," she said.

Families who lived along the coast are now scattered among many different shelters, creating more instability for children still dealing with the destruction they have experienced. "For them to regain their routine and their normal life, it's so important to become stabilized and then recover from their stress and grief," says Makiba Yamano, a World Vision team leader.

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On one morning the gymnasium at Kamaishi elementary school is transformed from the makeshift home it has become for hundreds of people into a venue for a belated graduation day.

"I am overwhelmed I can see my son graduate sixth grade despite every day being a nightmare after friends and relatives have died," said Shigeko Ogasawara.

Her son Shu was back among friends and laughing, despite his worries about the future.

The principal, Kouko Kato, said she believed that constant tsunami drills helped save the whole class when the actual tsunami alert sounded. "I'm very happy I was able to give 42 certificates to 42 students," she said.

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