Quilting bees in Canada and Japan

David McMurray


Sheri Alcordo regularly asks her grade 5 class at Driftwood Public School in Ontario, Canadato engage in projects that beautify the school yard and local environment. For example, her students joined together with parents and neighbors to plant and paint garden boxes adorned with key positive words about their inner city community. Alcordo’s class is a model demonstration class for equity, inclusion, and cultural relevance for the Toronto District School Board. She teaches a diverse group of children, including those who have special needs in the areas of ESL, learning disabilities, and giftedness.

Takaaki Sono teaches his grade 5 students at Kinko Dai Elementary School in Kagoshima, Japan how to paint, sew, and write poetry. He periodically teaches English lessons, too. As a result, colorful water paintings of dream homes and environmentally friendly buildings, designed by the students, adorn the classroom walls. Students exchange lucky charms and tissue paper covers made from an assortment of colored buttons and cut cloth. On PTA days, the students recite poems adapted from classic Japanese literature for their parents to appreciate. In English class, the students learn the names of colors and how to extend greetings. Children all over Japan are introduced to similar lesson plans during the integrated period of study in accordance with national curriculum guidelines.

When the March 11, 2011 tsunami devastated Japan, Linda Ohama was spurred into thinking of a way to synergistically combine these practical skills the children had learned from their teachers in Canada and Japan. Ohama (2012) reveals, “A day after the earthquake, I dreamt of helping the young people and letting them know that there are other young people in the world who care and think about them.” The earthquake hit mid-afternoon Japan-time, when children were in school and kindergarten, and so many were separated from their families and homes. Promises of money and aid poured into Tohoku from all over the world, but Ohama, a Canadian art educator and accomplished film director, worried about the spirits and hearts of the people, especially the children.This is how the Kids for Kids quilt project began.

Ohama believed that written words of encouragement and colorful drawings by Canadian children could brighten the lives of long-term grieving children in Tohoku. Ohama therefore recommended her colleagues in Canada ask their students to draw, paint, and embroider messages on cloth for children in Japan to read. Cloth is durable and embroidery and paint make the drawing colorful and more permanent. Everyone could share their feelings through images and a little Japanese and English. In response, young people across Canada began making hundreds of cloth letters.

Someone suggested joining all of the cloth letters together by sewing the 25 cm by 25 cm cloth squares into big 2 m by 3 m cloth letter quilts. Schools could hold quilting bees,where students and parents could accomplish the task of making a quilt to send to Japan. The job of sewingthe messages would be done as a group to allow socialization and all of its added benefits.

The Canada Cloth Letters

Sheri Alcordo asked her grade 5 class at Driftwood Public School in Ontario, Canada to draw pictures and write messages about hope, peace, and love as a gift for children in Tohoku who had been hurt by the tsunami. The students arranged their messages onto a large canvas quilt. While sewing their creative handicraft, they talked about how grade 5 students in Japan might react when they received their gift.

According to Alcordo (personal communication, May 1, 2012), the students wanted to be part of the quilt project because they “were inspired by the sense of community and inclusion it promotes by bringing others from around the world together for a common cause.” Alcordo found the quilt project to be an enjoyable learning technique that encouraged all students in her class to read and write in an entertaining way.

In recognition of her global and local community outreach activities, Alcordo was named Omni TV Golden Apple Teacher of the Year in 2011 and in 2012 was named Teacher of the Year by the Premier of Ontario. In receiving her award, she was praised by her school principal as an instructor who “willingly and enthusiastically shares her expertise, knowledge and resources with others and identifies, fosters and celebrates the strengths of others." Students say she makes learning fun and challenges them to think (Toronto District School Board, 2012).

More than 20 quilts with messages from children all around Canada were delivered to schools affected by the tsunami and earthquake in Tohoku, Japan.

Ohama spoke with principals at elementary schools in Tohoku about the situation they were facing. She learned that emergency assistance had restored power failures, shortages of food, water and gas to communities. She was informed that financial assistance from overseas had helped alleviate the terrible conditions. The words of encouragement sent by the Canadian children were appreciated and helped to inspire students and teachers who were trying to rebuild their lives day by day. She learned that schools had been used as emergency shelters. When people moved from the shelters to temporary housing, the school classrooms were quickly restored. School playgrounds would be used to build temporary shopping centers. As children went back to school and temporary shopping centers opened up, these activities became symbolic of the rebuilding of the town. In addition to being a place of learning, schools are part and parcel of community life. In addition to being convenient places to buy supplies, shopping malls are places of rest and relaxation for residents. The cloth letters from Canadian children could be displayed at schools and malls where people could come together to chat and rebuild their personal networks. As murals and wall paintings, the quilts could beautify the schools and centers in Japan. These combined efforts became the Canada Cloth Letters project.

The students in Japan who read the letters from Canada, responded by painting their own cloth letters and these became the Tohoku Cloth Letters.Since October 13, 2011, the Canada-Tohoku Cloth Letters have been on an exhibition tour, beginning with an exhibition at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo.

Japanese University Students Participate

When the Canada-Tohoku Cloth Letters were displayed at the International University of Kagoshima, students responded by penning 105 haiku about the sea onto a cloth quilt.A visiting graduate student from China, Yili Zhou, contributed the following haiku to the blue colored mosaic.

Beyond blue

hydrangea blooms

home sweet home

Freshman Kaori Kuga and a student nick-named Destiny, penned these poems:

Get together

your song makes me

sit by you


Beach parasol

waits for the first customer

summer day

Music students composed an original song, Blue Bird, to sing at a party to celebrate the debut of the quilt. At the party, students who had participated in house-cleaning bees and tree-planting bees in Tohoku, displayed photographs and talked about their volunteer activities. Over 300 people came to see the cloth letters. Completed on July 16, the Day of the Sea (Marine Day), the students sent their colorful quilt to Hiroshima. Other schools and universities have joined these quilt-making efforts. These are the Japan Cloth Letters.Together the 30 colorful quilts have become the inspiring and moving Canada-Tohoku-Japan Cloth Letters.

In addition to touring Tohoku, Linda Ohama visits universities in Japan to talk about the project. At Aoyama Gakuin University, 250 students and teachers from the English Department participated in her June 5, 2012 lecture. During a 90-minute classroom appearance, she showed photographs of her volunteer efforts and talked about how the Kids for Kids quilt project began. She explained how young people from the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec as well as the Yukon Territory created a quilt made by patching together hundreds of letters painted on cloths in an effort to cheer up the children of farming villages, towns, and cities in northern Japan after the March 11th Earthquake and Tsunami. When displayed in schools, town halls and community centers, the quilts beautify the community and create a sense of pride in the place students call home (Aoyama Gakuin University, 2012).

A versatile speaker, Ohama was also invited to talk about the movies she has directed. Another topic of keen interest to the audience was about the awarding of a university degree posthumously to her Japanese-Canadian father. Her father was unable to complete his studies at the University of British Columbia because he had been interned during World War II. The internment of Japanese-Canadians began in December 1941, after an attack on Americannaval and army facilities at Pearl Harborby Imperial Japan. Realizing that Japanese-Canadians had not been a threat to national security, in 1988 the Canadian government gave a formal apology and compensated the affected citizens. The Canadian university made amends in June 2012 by asking Ohama to accept an honorary degree on her deceased father’s behalf (Stueck, 2012).

To prepare for the wide variety of topics Ohama was asked to address, students had written questions in advance of the lecture based on information their instructor, Gregory Strong (2002) and his colleagues, had posted on the university website and an article he had written about her film, Obaachan's Garden. Questions to the invited speaker included asking her to describe the emotional journey she experienced while making the film, and what was it like growing up in Canada with a Japanese grandmother. Students were also keen to learn how she felt when she went to the Tohoku region after March 11, asking “What are your hopes for Japanese young people?”

After touring Japan, the Canada-Tohoku-Japan Cloth Letters will be displayed in schools and communities in Miyagi Prefecture until December 30, 2012. The quilts made in Japan are scheduled to return to Canada in 2013 for Canadian students to enjoy reading.



Aoyama Gakuin University. (2012). Special Lecture by Linda Ohama. Retrieved from <www.aogaku-daku.org>

Ohama, L. (2012). Canada Tohoku Japan Cloth Letters. Retrieved from <www.clothletters.com>

Strong, G. (2002, November 14). Obaachan’s Garden’ Chronicles. The Daily Yomiuri.

Stueck, W. (2012, May 29). Japanese-Canadians to receive UBC diplomas 70 years later. The Globe and Mail.

Toronto District School Board. (2012). Driftwood garden builds community, pride.Retrieved from <www.tdsb.on.ca/about_us/media_room/Room.asp?show=allNews&view=detailed&s...