Young kids running amok, dancing crazily, jumping on adults’ backs demanding piggyback rides.
For many English teachers, these are occupational hazards. For Mike Maher-King, moments like this are the best part of his life in Japan. For the children, who are growing up in an orphanage in Fukui Prefecture, this is one of the highlights of their month.
But when Maher-King came to Japan on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program four years ago, founding a group to promote volunteering at orphanages was the last thing he expected to do. He had not been involved in volunteering in his native England.
Moving to Japan was a goal he and his wife, Kate, set after falling in love with the country during their gap year travels before university. At university, she studied Japan and East Asia as part of her history major and the couple made Japanese friends on the university soccer team. When they arrived in the city of Fukui in August 2006, they did so with the intention of staying for several years.
Knowing they would be living in Japan for at least a few years made it easier to integrate. “We wanted to become a part of society,” says Maher-King. The couple traveled around the country, joined the local soccer teams and studied Japanese in their free time. They were enjoying their life as part of the community and receptive to the opportunity to give something back.
“We didn’t know there were orphanages in Japan. Of course there must have been, we just had never thought about it,” he says. They found out because one of Kate’s elementary school students was more affectionate than most. When she mentioned it to a fellow teacher she found out that the child, and a handful of her other students, were living at a local orphanage.
The couple decided they wanted to volunteer to visit the orphanage, and they sent an e-mail to members of the Association for Japan Exchange and Teaching chapter in Fukui. Within a week, they had received more than 30 responses from willing volunteers. Over the next couple of months, more than 90 volunteers got involved.
Next, they approached the orphanage. The support of a local teacher helped them gain the trust of the staff. “They respect him, they know him, he’s worked with the kids for six years,” Maher-King says. The biggest challenge in the beginning was finding a time when everyone could meet. But once they presented their idea, the orphanage director gave them full support.
A group of 30 volunteers from around the prefecture first visited the orphanage in May 2008. Though all of the volunteers were English teachers, the purpose of the visits were not to teach English but to provide individual attention.
“The staff at the orphanage are amazing, they really care and look after the kids. But there are only around six staff on duty and around 30 kids,” says Maher-King, whereas the volunteers come in groups of 20 to 30. Large and small group activities with a break in between give the children chances to mingle, choose their favorite activities, and build relationships with volunteers.
From the changes Maher-King saw in some of the children, he says that the opportunity to socialize and make decisions have helped them become more open, confident and trusting.
“The kid that never smiled and was like ‘what are you all doing here?’ and didn’t want to play the first two or three times would play a little, then play a lot and now is always smiling and cuddling everyone.”
Since then, volunteers have come to the Fukui orphanage once a month and started visiting two other orphanages in the prefecture. They have also worked with staff to coordinate special activities such as swimming lessons and sports festivals. Support from the staff has been instrumental. “Because the staff valued us, the children valued us,” Maher-King says.
The volunteers have also continued to receive support from the Fukui chapter of AJET, which raised approximately ¥380,000 at events in 2009. The money will be distributed among the five orphanages in the prefecture. One orphanage plans to buy cameras, vacuum cleaners and a basketball net. Part of the money will also be spent by the volunteers on toys and sports equipment to be donated to the orphanage.
After accomplishing so much in Fukui, Maher-King was afraid that if he left Japan there would be no one to pass on the knowledge he had accumulated. As a result, he started Smile Kids Japan, a Web-based network for orphanage volunteers.
Utilizing the AJET network, Maher-King found volunteers around the country willing to help design a website and translate information into Japanese. “We wanted the Japanese community to see what we’re doing, but also what they can do,” says Maher-King, who also hopes to make the site available in Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Tagalog.
Through AJET, he was also able to introduce the idea of volunteering at orphanages to JETs all over Japan and connect with similar groups. By last spring, volunteers had started or were starting orphanage visits in 16 prefectures.
In the future, he hopes to find sponsorship to be able to promote Smile Kids Japan full time and introduce the concept to a diverse body of potential volunteers. University volunteer centers, hospitals with training nurses and an English-education company have approached him about having their members volunteer.
His dream is for local groups of foreign and Japanese volunteers to visit each of the 565 orphanages in Japan every month. Smile Kids Japan would act to promote awareness of the orphanages and provide a place for groups to share information. He also sees possibilities down the line for facilitating local and international fundraising for the orphanages.
But the real heart of his endeavor is to give willing volunteers a chance to become a positive force in society. “I think both foreigners who come to Japan and Japanese people have a lot of enthusiasm and often want to volunteer and make a difference, but up until now they haven’t necessarily had an outlet. We hope to show them that they can make a difference to those who need it the most.”