ISHINOMAKI, MIYAGI PREF. – Twenty-something Satoshi Okuno thought he had finally found the answer to his question — what can he do for society — when he saw children studying in a corner of a gymnasium being used as a shelter following the March 2011 disaster in Tohoku.
“I should support children who are studying,” Okuno told himself. He talked about the idea with his friend Yusuke Imai and other people, and then established the group Chance for Children three months after the devastating quake and tsunami.
Five years on, the group has provided support to more than 1,000 children.
The group collects donations from private foundations and companies and issues vouchers for children to attend after-school educational facilities. In return, those facilities send the vouchers to CFC and are reimbursed the tuition fees in cash.
CFC provides families in need with ¥150,000 to ¥300,000 worth of vouchers per year. The level depends on conditions such as their family income. Vouchers are used for education, while cash can sometimes be diverted to meet families’ needs, Okuno said.
Okuno, now 30, collects donations mainly in Tokyo. To maintain management transparency, CFC has an avowed policy of using 70 percent of donations for the voucher program.
Donations are increasing as poverty is increasingly a social issue and as more children are living in families with incomes less than half of the national average, he said.
But the children CFC has helped account for only 1 in 10 applicants to the program, he added.
Okuno hopes local governments in disaster-hit regions will address the issue on a wider scale by providing financial support for after-school education of children in need.
The 2011 disaster left more than 18,000 people dead or missing while thousands still are forced to live away from their hometowns.
Okuno himself experienced a major earthquake in October 2004 in Niigata Prefecture. As a student busy preparing for university entrance exams he felt unable to help people in the areas that were most damaged. But he saw a large number of volunteers arriving to help from Hyogo Prefecture, which was hit by the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.
Okuno wondered what motivated the volunteers to come to Niigata. To find the answer, he enrolled in Kwansei Gakuin University in Hyogo. There he became deeply involved in volunteer activities related to education for elementary and junior high school students, and that is where he met Imai, his then classmate and future CFC co-founder.
Although the two parted ways for a few years, they met again and agreed to do something for the good of the wider society.
The reunion was only four days before the March 11 disaster, Okuno remembers. Feeling fate had played a part in bringing them back together, Imai quit his job and joined Okuno.
Despite being only at the start of their journey, they agreed to continue CFC’s work for 20 years at least.
Okuno recently met Midori Chiba, one of the children supported by CFC. Chiba, now a 19-year-old college student with plans to become a dietician, received CFC vouchers for about four years.
While thanking a female CFC adviser who helped her, Chiba said, “I want to be like her.” She goes to the university the adviser graduated from, while also helping CFC by working as a volunteer.
Okuno also visited Gaishi Itakura, 16, a high school student who lost his mother in the Tohoku disaster. Itakura received vouchers from CFC.
Itakura attended an event in the United States commemorating the disaster and has since become interested in international exchanges.
“I want to engage in work to create things through discussions with people from various countries,” he told Okuno.
Okuno said a serious problem CFC needs to address is that applications for the group’s assistance come only from families wishing to give their children a good education. Children from families who are living on a more day-to-day basis perhaps do not give the necessary focus to their children’s education and so are unable to break the cycle of poverty.
Support “has failed to reach families that need it most,” Okuno said.
CFC is thus seeking tie-ups with groups that assign home tutors free of charge, with organizations that support poor families as well as with municipal governments.