Lisa Ensley leads relief drive for people in Japan

Lisa Ensley

Lisa Ensley makes friends easily. Recently she befriended hundreds of people in Misawa, Japan, which suffered tremendous losses in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Lisa, her husband Bert, and their helpers have sent close to 100 boxes of donated food, clothing and other necessities to Misawa in a relief drive that began with a simple email.

The glaring needs of Misawa residents were brought to the Ensleys’ attention through their son, Robert (Robby) and his wife, Erin, who live in that city with their children.

Robby serves in the Air Force, which has a base in Misawa.

When he and Erin told his parents of the devastation that had hit the city, Lisa took it as a cry for help.

The tidal wave came within three miles of the Ensleys’ house. It wiped out the port and many businesses and homes, including the house that belonged to the family of the Ensleys’ maid.

The people of Misawa were left without electricity and water for a couple of days, Lisa said. The electricity finally got turned on, but since it was available on a limited basis, residents experienced rolling blackouts, Lisa said.

There have been over 860 aftershocks since the March 11 quake. “The other day one registered at 6.7.”

The Ensleys told Lisa that the people of Misawa needed coats, clothes, food, underwear, toothpaste, tooth brushes, shampoo — just about every necessity.

“I said I’ll do what I can,” she assured them. After sending out an email to friends, family and co-workers within the Kodiak school district where she works, Lisa received numerous emails, telephone calls and personal visits from people who wanted to help.

“I had a family in California asking what they could do.” The Ensleys had met this family while Bert was in the Coast Guard. Recently he retired.

Realizing that this was a job she couldn’t do single-handed, Lisa enlisted the help of friends and co-workers.

One of the first to pitch in was long-time friend, Colleen Newman.

“As soon as I got started on this, she was there to help.”

Other volunteers included Colleen’s husband, Ken, Judi Kidder, Karen Griffin and Lisa’s boss, Joyce Fried, homeschool coordinator at the Kodiak High School learning center.

“Joyce has been a great help.” The high school allowed Lisa and her helpers to use the learning center for packing supplies and the learning center parking lot for a food drive last Saturday.

During that food drive, the Ensleys and their helpers collected $400 and 25 boxes of non-perishable food including rice, noodles, peanut butter, tuna and canned beets.

So far the Ensleys have collected $2,100 to pay for shipping which is rather expensive considering that it costs at least $13 to send one box of supplies to Misawa. Lisa anticipates shipping well over 200 boxes by the time the drive is over.

The Newmans’ and Ensleys’ trucks are full of boxes, but they’ll have to find room for more.

“We still have more to pick up at the Coast Guard commissary,” Lisa said. The Salvation Army and other faith groups and organizations have also donated boxes of food and clothing.

The packages are sent to a military base on the West Coast and shipped on a large cargo plane to Misawa where Erin and her friends pick them up. It takes about seven to 10 days for the boxes to get there.

Erin is doing the work without onsite assistance from her husband, who was relocated with other military personnel to South Korea two weeks ago. They were not able to do their job at the Misawa base because of the damage wrought by the March 11 disaster.

Erin bakes goods for workers who are trying to get the base up and running and has been helping out on the town cleanup.

The mayor of Misawa plans to personally thank and recognize Erin for the work she and her family and friends have done for the devastated community.

Lisa and Bert first heard about the March 11 tsunami in a telephone call from a friend called.

“We turned on TV and all we saw was a massive wave,” Lisa said.

“They kept saying on the news that northeast Japan was hit, but they were not saying what town. We were on edge, trying to figure out if our kids were OK or not.”

It took about two hours for the Ensleys to get through to Misawa.

“Erin said they were OK. Sirens were going off every five minutes. Erin and the kids were in the house without electricity. Robby was at work. The phone went dead.”

Two days later the Ensleys were able to communicate with their family again.

Robby Ensley and his family live about 215 miles north of the area where radioactivity has been released. Erin assured her in-laws that the Air Force is monitoring the situation very closely, checking the quality of the air and water.

Residents were given an opportunity to evacuate Misawa, but the Ensleys decided to stay.

“They didn’t want to pull the kids from school. They’re safe where they’re at right now. The military will evacuate them if it becomes unsafe.”

Some 1,700 people in Misawa have signed up to leave. They’re still waiting while others closer to the radioactive area are being evacuated.

There is nothing the people of Kodiak can do to shelter the residents of Misawa from dangerous radioactivity, but they can help supply the basic needs to get them through this crisis.

Kodiak folks have generously and enthusiastically risen to the occasion to help the unfortunate across the Pacific.

“This community pulls together like no other I’ve ever seen,” said Karen Griffin, who grew up here.

The Ensleys, who have lived at Coast Guard support centers and bases in Kodiak, Elizabeth City, N.C., Mobile, Ala., and Sacramento, Calif., keep coming back to the island for military tours. Now they are here to stay.

Kodiak has changed since the first time they were here in the mid 1980s, but “everybody still cares,” Lisa said. “People are willing and able to help.”

Heading up the Misawa relief program has been “overwhelming, exciting, tiring, hard work, but worth every minute of it,” Lisa said. “I can’t thank the people of this community enough.

“I thought I would get a couple boxes and few bucks. I had no earthly idea it would turn into this big a project.”

She shouldn’t be surprised at the quick and immense response. After all, the people of Kodiak are famous for that robust philanthropy.

If you would like to help in the Misawa relief project, call Lisa at 942-7535 or email her at

Since this charity is not sponsored by a non-profit organization, donations are not tax exempt.

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