In her 37 years as a missionary in Japan, Teddy Sawka has seen the effects of major natural disasters.

She was in Japan in 1995 for the Kobe earthquake and was aware of the high death rates among elderly survivors who were left alone and depressed after the disaster. When last year’s massive earthquake and tsunami struck near Sawka’s village of Shichigahama in Sendai, many elderly residents were again left alone, living in temporary shelters on a local soccer field

This time Sawka — who, along with her husband, serves with the Global Spheres ministry group — vowed to do better to help these survivors cope and rebuild their lives. 

“Teddy worried about the large number of displaced older women living in the quickly built and temporary government housing,” said Jill France, Sawka’s cousin and a member of Cuyahoga Falls United Presbyterian Church in Ohio. “She saw some of them becoming depressed and thought about knitting or crocheting as a way to help keep their hands and minds busy.”

Knitting is popular in Japan, so Sawka came to the Daiichi Sports Field housing complex with donated yarn and organized Yarn Alive, a knitting group with about 20 members that meets every Tuesday. 

The effort has also yielded other benefits. Initially the ladies began knitting blankets for people in other parts of Japan that were more badly damaged. They have also made leg warmers that were sold in Tokyo. The earnings from that project went toward rebuilding the town.

As a means of keeping the ladies in the group busy and engaged in life outside of their temporary shelter homes, Yarn Alive has been even more successful than Sawka hoped, with about half of the knitters now meeting daily.

Meanwhile, France, who follows her cousin’s activities on Facebook, saw how much Yarn Alive meant to the women in Japan and wanted to do something to help.

“I talked to Teddy’s mom here in town to find out what we could do and learned that money meant nothing when there were no stores left to shop in. They needed yarn, knitting needles, and crochet hooks,” she said.

France is co-chair of a knitting group of about 15 women at United Presbyterian that makes prayer shawls for people in need. She told her group members about Yarn Alive and the women started collecting supplies to ship to Japan.

“A few weeks later we had six boxes ready to ship. A couple months later we shipped another four,” France said.

To show their appreciation, the members of Yarn Alive sent back small, flower-shaped lapel pins they’d crocheted for the women in Ohio.

A couple of months ago, the Wall Street Journal’s Tokyo Bureau heard about the ministry and interviewed members of the Yarn Alive group in Japan as well as France and members of her group in Ohio. 

“We were excited but figured we wouldn’t see an article because it would be published in Japan,” France said. “When my aunt sent me the website for the article and video I still thought that it was from the Japanese paper until our church secretary called wondering what to tell the people who were calling the church.”

The article was published March 5 — since then, the church office has received more than 80 calls and emails from people in 26 different states and Canada.

“We have received yarn, money, prayers and praise for our efforts to help the women in the parts of Japan hit by last year’s earthquake and tsunami,” France said. “The Lord works in such amazing ways. It has been just so wonderful to hear from people that are eager to help and so full of love.”

The ladies in Cuyahoga Falls originally sent 10 boxes of supplies to Japan. In the last several weeks, thanks to the donations, they’ve sent 24 more, with shipping costs also paid by donations.

Those who would like to send supplies to Sawka in Japan should follow these instructions from France: Use a Scotch brand mailing box in the 14” X 10” X 5.5”. When filled to no more than four pounds, this box costs about $25 to ship and is the least expensive option. An overseas form from the post office must also be completed. The boxes can be sent to:

Mrs. Ron Sawka TBC# 36
Shichigahama Machi
Miyagi Ken
Japan 985-0803

Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, NC, where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.