Hope in action: The story of the Makenaizou

After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, many people lost their homes and their livelihoods. Thousands would sit in shelters with nothing to do but wait and hope. Relief agencies, in addition to raising funds, also needed to help people get through each day.

So a local group decided to do something different. They started the “makenaizou” (pronounced MAH-KEN-EYE-ZOH) project, a creative way for people to help themselves while spreading a message of hope around the world.

The “Never Give Up Elephant”

The makenaizou are small handicrafts - little elephants made from ordinary hand towels. ("Makenai zou" means "we'll never give up!" in Japanese. And since “zou” also means elephant, the towel is known as the “never give up elephant.”)

The idea is simple. People affected by the quake turn something readily available into small mementos and sell them. Each one sells for 400 yen (about $5.20). 100 yen goes to the person who makes the towel and the other 300 yen goes to general relief efforts.

Making the towels gives displaced people something to do.

“This is the first time for me to be tired nicely since the earthquake happened, because we have had no work to do after evacuation.”

“Although we have been suffering from the bad memory of tsunami since Mar. 11, we could forget about it while making Makenai-zou together.”

And the people who buy them get much more than a towel. They get a story. And a physical reminder that the person who made what they were holding was affected by a tragedy - and won’t give up.

Each time an earthquake has struck Japan, the small relief agency got towels and taught people how to make makenaizou. Each time, they gave people something to do while giving them hope that others would know and care about their plight.

Will it make a difference?

It’s easy to dismiss efforts like the makenaizou project. Will 100 yen really make a difference to someone in Fukushima?

It’s easier to do nothing, and hope that someone else comes up with a bigger, grander solution.

Yet, whenever I think that way, I’m reminded of a story I heard as a child:

A man is walking along a beach filled with thousands of stranded starfish when he comes across a young boy who's picking them up one-by-one and tossing them back into the sea.

“Young boy,” says the man, “there are too many starfish here. Surely you can’t help them all.”

“Maybe,” said the boy, as he smiled and returned another starfish to the water.

“But I just helped this one.”

Hope. And action.

It's true that you may not be able to help everyone. But you can do more than hope. You can act. You can make a small difference and spread the story. And by doing so you can inspire others to contribute and make a difference.

Whatever your cause, whether it’s changing yourself, changing your firm, or changing the world, remember the “never give up elephant" and don’t give up.

Hope and action are a very powerful combination.