Spotlight: Local teenager raises funds for Japan


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One warm spring Saturday morning, Bennett Luthje bends over his notebook, working on math problems in his makeshift classroom — a tiny room in the basement of Zion Lutheran Church. Sitting between two classmates, his hand moves feverishly as he works on the equation.

As he does, a red band hugging his wrist wiggles with the rhythm of his hand scrawling out the answer.

Though the Northwest Junior High eighth-grader may be concentrating on his schoolwork, the band serves as a vigilant reminder his heart remains with a nation far across the ocean.

Etched into the band's surface are words that send a clear message.

"Ganbare nippon." Stay strong Japan.

Japanese-born, Bennett is one of several students who has raised funds to help those in Japan who were devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

On Saturdays, Bennett and 11-year-old brother Kaiya Luthje attend the Iowa City Japanese School, which helped him and his friends in the fundraising effort.

So far, Bennett, with help from his peers, have been able to raise roughly $4,000 for the cause, said mother Eri Luthje.

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Bennett has family ties to the recent events. Born in Yokohama, he and his family lived in Japan for five years. His mother and father met in Japan while his father was serving in the U.S. Navy.

And though the 15-year-old and his family now live in the United States, they return to the Asian country every summer to visit family.

Bennett said he was sitting in front of the television as the images of his birth country became covered with rubble and engulfed by waves when the earthquake and tsunami struck.

At first, he said, he had trouble reaching out to those he knew overseas, but he was able to eventually.

One uncle, he said, lives near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors, which took a direct hit from the tsunami.

"We can't just stay there and watch the whole thing without doing something," Bennett said.

In response, he and several others created T-shirts and wristbands to sell, their earnings to be donated to the Red Cross, to help the vicitims of the disaster.

"I don't know if they'll ever get their lives back," he said about his friends and family.

Fourteen-year-old Brenna Marks, a friend who has joined Bennett in his efforts, said, "I hope it will help them in some way."

Luthje notes his passion for helping isn't just because of his loved ones. It's also about preserving his heritage.

"I don't want to forget, you know?" he said.

This is the third article in a five-part series on interesting local youth. Check back Thursday to read about a concert pianist from City High.

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