YAMAMOTO-CHO, Japan — It is easy to forget about the tragedy that surrounds the Yamashita Middle School here while watching a soccer game in this community in northern Japan. Shouts of joy, in stark contrast to the recent sorrow, fill the atmosphere as the ball moves up and down the field.

And that's just what Sterling Peterson, 17, a Timpview High School student from Utah, wanted.

He traveled to Japan to do what he could to help these students after a 9.0 earthquake and powerful tsunami devastated their community. Four of their classmates died in the disaster, which left 15,401 dead, displaced thousands and destroyed more than 551,000 homes throughout Japan, according to the National Police Agency. To date, some 8,146 people remain missing.

For miles around the school, piles of rubble are a somber remnant of the homes that once dominated this desolate landscape and the people who lived in them; a pot, a baby blanket, a fisherman's boot and a stuffed doll are the belongings of some of the 750 people who took refuge in the school's halls and classrooms following the disaster.

Three months later, 120 people remain in the school gym, waiting for temporary housing.

Shuji Watanabe, the school principal, said despite the disaster, everyone at the school is working hard to focus on one thing: educating students.

But today, the students seem to have shifted their focus to soccer.

Sterling has spent three days in Yamamoto-cho, a town south of Sendai, where he attended classes and, of course, played soccer with Japanese students his age. Through his Eagle Scout project, he raised money to give the young people soccer balls, uniforms, training cones and whistles. He also purchased portable fans for the school's classrooms, which do not have air conditioning.

Sterling and the students don't speak the same language, but two things unite them: soccer and their Japanese heritage.

In 1949 — in the aftermath of World War II — Sterling's great-grandfather, Masao Watabe, met Mormon missionaries and was baptized; he became the first person to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Tohoku area.

A short time later, his wife, Hisako, and his son, Masahisa, were also baptized.

Masahisa Watabe was raised in the northern Japanese city of Sendai, where his father served as the first native branch president. Today Masahisa Watabe and his wife, Faith, serve as senior missionaries in the church's area office in Tokyo.

The Watabes told their daughter, Wendy Peterson, of the needs in Japan. She knew Sterling could help. "We said, 'We have go to do something for these people. We realized there are so many needs up here.'"

The project, somehow, fell together in less than two weeks. The Petersons, members of the Mount Loafer Ward, Salem Utah Stake, held a fundraising dinner and silent auction. They gathered donations from local businesses and teams. "It was almost like a community project," Peterson said. "There was support everywhere. There were a lot of people behind this project to make it successful."

Sterling said it was the least he could do.

In the weeks following the earthquake, "I felt ties to Japan and wanted to be able to help them in some way," he said.

In an informal ceremony, he presented the fans to the school's principal. "This will help us study longer and be cooler," said Principal Watanabe, noting that about one-third of the students in the school lost their homes in the disaster. The principal also lost his home.

Moving outside, Sterling then distributed the balls and the uniforms to the soccer team.

"These are gifts I brought for your soccer team, so you will do good in the tournament."

Sterling said the project was the least he could do in the area where his roots run deep.

"My great-grandfather was here. He was here doing a lot for the people. It was a chance for me to show I care about the people, too. I am glad I get to help the people of this area, the people he loved."

Sterling called the service project memorable. "I learned so much about where I came from," he said. "I got to learn about my great-grandfather that was here, the way life was for him."

Email: sarah@desnews.com