Shino Kondo was preparing for her junior high school graduation ceremony when she felt the first vibrations.
"At first, I thought it was me shaking, but then everyone started screaming," the 16-year-old girl from Sendai, Japan said, recalling her initial reaction to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake – the most powerful quake to hit the island nation in nearly 12 centuries. "We were evacuated outside and then sent home, but when I arrived, my house was no longer vertical. I waited there for four hours until my family arrived. I was terrified."
Kondo was one of nearly two dozen Japanese high school students who visited Delaware last week and shared their experiences with nearly 100 people who attended a presentation at Alfred G. Waters Middle School near Middletown on Friday.
Funded by the Japanese government through The Laurasian Institution, their visit was a part of The Kizuna Project, a student exchange program that seeks to educate children from other nations about the ongoing recovery efforts.
Kondo, who lives about 80 miles from the earthquake's epicenter, was fortunate.
Her family was able to rebuild their home 18 months after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which killed nearly 16,000 people, left another 350,000 homeless, and resulted in meltdowns at three nuclear reactors.
"A lot of people in America think the recovery is over, but there is still a lot of damage and they still need our support," said Melanie Czerwinski, a 17-year-old Middletown High School student, who helped to coordinate the Japanese students' presentation as her senior project.
Czerwinski said she chose the project after visiting Japan last summer as a part of the Kizuna Project exchange program.
"What really inspired me was the way the Japanese people value community, which is something I think we all need to remember, because I think we take it for granted," said Czerwinski, who will major in Asian studies at the University of Delaware next fall. "This project also taught me a lot about time management and event planning. And I got to learn a lot about what happened, what is still being done today and how it affected these students personally."
Linnea Bradshaw, who teaches Japanese at Appoquinimink High School and Waters Middle School and coordinated the Japanese students' visit last week, said she also found the presentation enlightening.
"I thought I knew a lot before, but this was amazing," she said. "The turnout was also incredible. I think it's great that we can have these exchanges, because these kids end up learning a lot about each other's cultures and a lot of them end up making lifelong friends."
Delaware has a long-standing relationship with Miyagi Prefecture, which was hardest hit by the Japanese earthquake. The two became sister states in 1997 under Gov. Tom Carper.
Page 2 of 2 - Gov. Jack Markell saw the recovery efforts in Sendai first hand during a week-long economic development trip to Japan last December and the students visiting Delaware this week paid him a visit in Dover.
The Appoquinimink School District also has played an important role in the state's relationship with Miyagi and is currently the only district in Delaware to offer a full Japanese language program.
"We live in a global market now and our students will need to be able to work collaboratively and exchange information across borders," district spokeswoman Lillian Miles said. "That's why our district has been a pioneer in providing an international education, and will continue working to deliver the world to our students in a variety of ways, including cultural exchanges like this."