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STAFF PHOTO BY TOMOYA SHIMURA
FOR THE CHILDREN: Emiko Christensen, of Spring Valley Lake, nearly died from infection after cancer removal surgery. She recovered in time to host the Green Band, a Japanese marching band that participated in the Rose Parade on Tuesday. Emiko has been a mother figure to nearly 200 high school students who visit the United States every year.

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Cancer survivor hosts Rose Parade band

A group of 111 high school students from Japan marched down Colorado Boulevard on New Year's Day, playing and dancing to Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

The Green Band Association, a nonprofit organization in Japan, has been invited to the Rose Parade each year since 2008.

At the center of the band is a Spring Valley Lake couple, Emiko and Kent Christensen. They coordinate all logistical matters for the band, helping the Japanese boys and girls feel at home during their nearly two-week trip to Southern California. They spend the whole year arranging hotels, transportation and meals.

The Christensens communicate with the Tournament of Roses and Disney as liaisons. They took the GBA to Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in Paris.

They are mother and father figures for the students.

But this year’s Rose Parade meant even more for the couple.

Emiko Christensen was diagnosed with cancer in August and almost died after doctors accidentally cut a hole in her intestine during surgery. She was in the intensive care unit for three weeks. She couldn’t cry because her eyes were dried out. She couldn’t talk, hear or eat and could barely breathe.

But she was determined to recover in time to host the students, who were scheduled to arrive on Christmas Eve.

“We used to ask various agencies to help us out, but we never had anyone like her,” Yuzuru Kumagai, founder of the GBA, said. “That’s why we began relying on her every year. She understands the needs of the kids and host families. I think her volunteer spirit is the source of her energy. She risked her life to help us out this year.”

Feeling the energy

Emiko got involved in the GBA in 2005 when it held a charity concert at Victor Valley College.

The GBA was formed to promote cultural exchange through music and to raise awareness for environmental issues such as saving the desert tortoise.

“I like helping kids who come to the United States with dreams,” Emiko said. “It’s once-in-a-lifetime experience for these kids. I want them to have a good time.”

She overlaps their experience with what she went through when she first came to the United States in the late ’70s.

Moreover, having raised three children of her own enables her to understand the anxieties of the students’ parents.

“I have children, too,” she said. “I can understand how parents feel when they travel to other countries.”

The biggest concern among students is getting sick before the New Year’s parade. In addition to jet lag and the change in climate, band members perform under a tight schedule, moving from one place to another constantly.

But Emiko said she can notice the students transforming during their trip.

Students said the cheers and reactions they get from American crowds are so much louder than what they are used to getting in Japan, where people are generally reserved.

“The energy from the crowd is fantastic in the United States,” said GBA coach Hirofumi Yokoyama. “They give us back in two-fold. I want them to feel that. I want them to turn that into their own energy. That’s the essence of entertainment.”

Yukiko Ogami, a 24-year-old school nurse, joined the trip for the fourth time. She said she tagged along to help students get the same experience that changed her.

“I learned how entertainment can affect so many people when I was here as a student,” she said. “Every day was full of excitement. It encouraged me to take advantage of opportunities and try different things.”

A family affair

This year’s Green Band consisted of students from four different high schools from Izumo, a city of about 170,000 residents.

Despite losing 25 pounds, Emiko was back on her feet just three months after her surgery, leading a pack of Izumo students as they took photos in front of the Rose Bowl and toured a float exhibit. She insisted that her husband leave her wheelchair at home.

Tournament of Roses officials who knew about her surgery greeted and hugged her.

Kent, who remained behind the scenes in the past, took two weeks off from work to support his wife through Christmas and the New Year.

The Christensens have given up spending Christmas and New Year’s — and even their daughter’s birthday — together at home since they became involved with the GBA. Now their family holiday tradition is for the children to help the band and attend the Rose Parade.

Emiko may have received as much from the band as she has given this year.

“She used it as a motivation not only to get better, but she used it as a motivation to stay alive because there were some really, really tough times when she had pain and couldn’t breathe,” Kent said.

Emiko didn’t walk with the band this year. Instead, she watched the Rose Parade on TV near the finishing point.

“I slept almost half the time,” said Emiko, who didn’t get any sleep the night before.

She watched as the students hugged, smiled and cried after all of them made it to the end, even after a few students suffered from the flu leading up to New Year’s Day.

“I was so happy to see their contented faces,” she said. “The band is like my own child. I’ve met so many wonderful people through Green Band.”

Tomoya Shimura may be reached at (760) 955-5368 or TShimura@VVDailyPress.com. Follow Tomoya on Facebook at facebook.com/ShimuraTomoya.

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