Vounteers at the Sanbien Children’s Home Christmas party.
by Dan Moeller
1. Tell us a little about the orphanage. Where is it? What kind of kids attend? What ages?
The orphanage is called Sanbien Children’s Home (子供の家三美園) and it is located on the north side of Onomichi, right next to Kurihara Kita Elementary School (a school I teach at). There’s a whole range of kids that live there, from four years old up to 17 years old.
2. What is your relation to the whole group? Who’s in charge?
Who’s the organizer? Me. I don’t like to think of myself as being in charge of Kokoro Hiroshima (the Hiroshima branch of Smile Kids Japan). I just happen to be a guy in the right place at the right time. I liaison the orphanage staff to set up visits and events, coordinate with the volunteers to put our monthly visits into action, and I do my best to keep up with the kids, just like everyone else.
3. How long has the volunteer program been running?
I most definitely need to give a shout out to Smile Kids Japan. http://www.smilekidsjapan.org/lang/en/about/
Smile Kids Japan is an ALT-run organization that originated out of Fukui in Fukui-ken and has grown to 18 programs, all running independently across Japan, but all based on the same principle: reaching out to the kids in communities we ALTs live and work in.
That being said, the Onomichi branch just turned a year last month. Our first visit was February 2010 and it’s still going strong thanks to the volunteers.
A finished craft project volunteers completed with the kids.
4. Who looks forward to the program more, the kids or the volunteers?
It’s really hard to say who looks forward to the visits more. Obviously, the volunteers get a lot out of it. I mean, c’mon, we’re on the JET Program, in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and are in the neighborhood of half a dozen more beautiful countries a weekend trip away. My point is there is plenty to do other than play with kids on a Sunday afternoon, especially after maybe seeing them all week long, but that doesn’t matter to our volunteers. I’m not far off in saying that a good number of the volunteers, including myself, build their month and week around that one visit that rolls around every 30-odd days. There’s nothing else like it. The kids just want attention, whether that’s someone to catch a ball, give a piggy-back ride, draw a few pictures, or talk manga with.
The more I think about it, though, it’s probably the kids who look forward to the visits. I teach all the kids at two of my schools. I see them weekly and every – not kidding – every time I go there I get bombarded with questions of when we (the volunteers) are coming next. This comes from kids that don’t speak a lick of English, can’t sit still in class, and who maybe have shown a distinct dislike towards me before I started visiting their home. These visits have changed a lot for them, in the classroom and at home.
5. One visit a month…does this really help these kids?
One visit a month does wonders. The anticipation that builds up from one visit to the next is dumbfounding. I’ll have kids not pay attention in class just to ask me when we are coming back and what we’re going to be doing. That right there is how I know we are making at least a bit of a difference. There’s expectations there, excitement. Not all these kids are parent-less. Some have families that are unable to support them for a variety of reasons (sickness, money, etc.), so they need to live in the orphanage.
And it’s not a place out of Oliver Twist. It’s a nice facility with a great staff, but still what it comes down to is that these kids have been, at some point in their lives and in some shape or form, abandoned by people that were supposed to be there for them. By no means do our volunteers replace family. That’s not the idea at all. We do, however, provide as much of a community and consistency as one visit a month allows. We give out birthday cakes every month. We hand out prizes for competitions. We have clothing and toy drives. We have Christmas parties with Santa suits and carols. There’s a lot that we can’t do for these kids, but by giving a little time and a little effort we give them at least one bright spot every few weeks. It’s nice to know someone is out there.
Working on another craft project together.
6. What are the current setbacks of the program? For example, can anyone help out?
Unfortunately, the orphanage we work with is a little strict on who can be a volunteer. I’ve made them aware that there is a larger community of volunteers (Japanese, non-JET, etc.) out there that wants to participate. However, the orphanage seems very comfortable with the fact that ALTs are forced to have a background check before coming over, something a friend of a friend may not have. Also, as far as Japanese volunteers, Kokoro Hiroshima welcomes volunteers from the community as well, but, unfortunately, we are at the mercy of the guidelines the orphanage lays out for us, as we are their guests.
“As of yet we haven’t received an OK for Japanese volunteers…but it doesn’t mean I’ve stopped asking.”
Other setbacks revolve around funding. We are a volunteer organization and independent from the larger Smile Kids Japan in that we don’t receive funding from them. We run on donations made by volunteers and members of the community. Everything received goes into the visits we make. Paper, crayons, paint, balls, balloons, and cakes are all paid for by our volunteers and charitable donations. Unfortunately, that means that we don’t have a consistent flow coming in for every visit, so it can be a little tricky some months.
7. I’ve attended a few times. These kids are crazy. A few are in desperate need of some role models and adult interaction. Are there any other volunteers in contact with these kids?
Not that I’m aware of. There seems to be a rotating staff there, as I see a few new faces every time I visit, but I believe they are indeed working there. There are few regular volunteer groups in Japan, which is part of what makes Kokoro Hiroshima so special.
A cookie tower made by volunteers and kids at the orphanage.
8. I heard there’s a video. Is it viewable anywhere…maybe online?
There is a video. Unfortunately since these are technically students and we are JET teachers, I don’t know if it’s going to be made available any time soon.
9. Speaking of videos, the Horror Film Festival had a great showing. Nice video, by the way. The food and beverage proceeds went to Sanbien, right? How much did you guys pull together?
Yes, the Horror Film Fest was a hit, and we did have a bake sale there to help raise money, with all proceeds going to our activities with the kids. What we got will help us for a visit or two, but I’m interested in holding another fundraiser at the next film festival this summer. I don’t know the details yet, but donations are ALWAYS welcome outside of fundraisers.
10. There has been some buzz going around about a Saijo location.
We wanted to have two locations within Hiroshima-ken, especially since a good amount of the volunteers come from the Hiroshima City side of the prefecture, but that fizzled out and right now we’re just focusing on the one.
11. Who could we contact to get some more info or get involved? Donations, even?
Smile Kids Japan is active in several different locations all over Japan. So, check out the website to get in touch with a coordinator near you. As for Onomichi and Kokoro Hiroshima, you can contact me personally if you want more information, want to volunteer, or are interested in making a donation. The more, the merrier.