“The Fukui Shi Orphanage celebrated Health and Sports Day this year in a way that was uniquely befitting of its origins. Forty-two years ago, the second Monday of October was set aside to commemorate the 1964 Olympic games in Tokyo, and to foster healthy minds and bodies through physical activity. Almost half a century later, another kind of international sports event was taking place: an East-Meets-West Sports Festival and barbecue organized by local JETs. On this sunny Monday holiday in a big dirt field behind the Fukui city orphanage, children were balancing bean bags on their heads and bouncing along on the backs of volunteers they had been getting to know for the past six months.
When our Kencho ALT asked the Fukui JET community to think about new volunteering opportunities, Michael Maher King approached a local orphanage to see what the ALT community could do to help the home” Lauren Stockhauen, the Fukui JET co-president says of the project’s simple beginnings. Six months ago, with the help of a local Elementary school teacher familiar with the orphanage staff, Mike was able to set up a meeting to talk about starting monthly volunteer visits to the home. The orphanage staff were very excited about the idea, but because there was no precedent for this kind of volunteer activity, it took careful planning and a tender approach to get things off the ground.
Since then, the project has bloomed spectacularly. Each month, a number of volunteers equal to the number of children who participate spend two hours playing games and becoming human jungle gyms for the kids. The visits are aimed more at giving the children one-on-one interaction and allowing them to develop friendships with people from around the world than teaching them English. The East-Meets-West sports day was a culmination of these visits made possible by the relationships built over the past six months. On the sports-day agenda was a flavorful mix of traditional Japanese and foreign field day events from tug-of-war to a three-legged race.
The response to the ongoing project from both children and orphanage staff has been overwhelmingly positive. “They love it and are delighted at everything,” Mike says of the Fukui Shi Furien staff and children, “The staff have huge respect for all the ALTs, which is really great for the ego.” The volunteer interest is also growing. In addition to JET volunteers, many local people and even an international club have approached the organizers to get involved. There are now over 60 people on the volunteer list, which has allowed the project to expand. Fukui JETs are now visiting another orphanage in Southern Fukui, and they hope to eventually send volunteers to all five orphanages in the prefecture.
The organizers were very excited to encourage other prefectures to start similar projects. Mike, the cheerful and dedicated leader, is full of wisdom. A few pearls include keeping motivation up by getting people involved in the planning, starting small, explaining clearly what you want to do and listening to any concerns and questions they have. Lastly, he has a positive belief in the mantra, “the more the merrier”: they are hoping to continue expanding the project and further involve the local community. The organizers were pleased to have a prefectural newspaper cover the event. They are hoping it will encourage more members of the Japanese community to get involved. Michael Maher King concluded with, “Basically the orphanage project keeps surprising me with how easy it is and how rewarding it is…I cannot recommend this project enough to every Prefecture in Japan. Try it! You will be surprised by how many people want to help, and how much of a difference you can make to a few kids lives who really need you.”
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