Teens give boost to volunteerism

What originally started out as a foreign youth group now networks across national lines


American School in Japan alumnus Jonathan Higa and student Alex Heideman are setting an example for others interested in volunteerism by boosting the youth activities of Hands On Tokyo, a nonprofit organization offering community services.

Hands On Tokyo is involved in 12 projects that have made it partners with organizations that need volunteer help, including a senior facility and a children’s home.

The 18-year-old teens from the school in Chofu, western Tokyo, originally took part in one or some of HOT’s activities, including teaching tennis to the visually impaired or visiting an orphanage and a home for abused children. Through this experience, they felt it was important to start volunteering at a young age and get used to the idea of serving the community.

So the students decided to form a “teen advisory board” with nine others last year to spread the notion of volunteerism to teens in the international school community, as well as to generate interest among their Japanese peers.

Mika Yoshii, an ASIJ student who will become president of the board next year, says it is part of the international students’ culture to volunteer and pay back to the community.

Enna Hattori, another ASIJ student, agreed, saying that volunteering comes naturally there.

“Especially at our school, they really emphasize volunteering and organize different projects, and we’re familiar with it. It’s not anything weird or something out there, it’s just a part of everybody’s lives,” she said.

Higa, former president of the teen advisory board, said the students want to bridge the gap between Japanese and foreign teens in this country.

“Our goal is to merge into the Japanese community and work together,” he said. “I would like to see us initiate presentations at Japanese local schools just to familiarize students with what volunteering is all about. I think the first step is to get to know Japanese students who are really interested in joining our volunteer activities.”

This year, the board has 13 members from five international schools, and the first Japanese student from a local school will join in January. Each member is assigned one activity and will individually solicit teen volunteers for their own activities.

The first project for the new members will be a collaboration between Japanese and foreign high school and college students, who will be working with a professional gospel singer to stage a joint performance at the organization’s fundraising event in February.

Yayoi Sogo, program director of HOT, says the organization has more than 2,000 registered volunteers, including adults and teens. Although they started out with mostly foreign volunteers, the organization is now half Japanese and half foreign.

She says the adults didn’t have to do anything to help the teens out, as they had the ability to work on their own to recruit other teens and reach out to the international schools on their own. “Every one of them has his/her own strength or talent, and we have been very fortunate to utilize these talents at HOT,” she said.

For example, Heideman, the current president of the board, played piano at one of HOT’s events, and Youngshin Kim, who has good coordinating skills, gathered volunteers who teach tennis to the visually impaired. Six of the seven volunteers who took part in the “blind tennis” event were from St. Mary’s International School, which Kim attends.

Aya Higa, Jonathan Higa’s mother and an adult board member of the organization, says she was impressed with the power, energy and commitment of the teen members, especially in HOT’s past two annual events — the fundraising auction “A Taste for Volunteering” in February, and a “Day of Service” in October that engaged more than 200 volunteers.

“I’ve been really helped by the teens. Whenever I needed help and asked them, they would always be willing to help out,” she said. “Initially, the teens were probably asked by adults to go and get involved, but then they began to develop their own skills.”

Jonathan Higa, who is now a freshman at Boston College, says that through the teen advisory board activities, he has learned not just about volunteering, but general skills such as developing leadership, making presentations and communicating with people. Higa added that the members interviewed students for screening, as they wanted it to be something that teens prioritize. “We wanted it to be a serious thing, something that they’ll stick committed to,” he said.

Most of the teen members first found out about HOT through ASIJ’s assembly, where the group’s adult members visited to give a presentation about their activities. Now the teens are trying to do the presentations themselves, as they say they feel it’s more effective if they ask other students in their schools to volunteer. “They can relate to us more, instead of having the adults come all the way in,” said Higa.

The teens have worked on the technological side of running HOT as well, with one member opening a Facebook account in English and a Twitter account in Japanese to keep people updated on the organization’s activities and events.

Phil Tseng, another ASIJ student, said that volunteering allows one to form relationships not only with other volunteers, but also with the people they’re helping out.

Yosuke Mori, the technology manager of the teen board, said the most memorable moment for him came when he was volunteering for the Special Olympics Basketball and one of the disabled students he was coaching wrote him a letter of appreciation and gave it to him.

“That’s part of the joy of helping out,” he said. Kim said he also found it very fulfilling when he was teaching tennis to the visually impaired, and one of the kids who can’t see recognized his voice and called out his name. “It took me one year for him to recognize my voice, but I felt good that I’m going there, and that I’m part of the group,” he said.

Heideman added that it’s really a joy for all of them. “Seeing the impact we make on one of those individuals . . . it’s the impact that draws people to volunteerism,” he said.

For more information on Hands On Tokyo and to register for volunteering, access www.handsontokyo.org/en/home