Dreams for life, not just for Christmas

Volunteer group aims to foster confidence, lifelong skills among children in state care


The noise echoing down the dimly lit street in suburban Tokyo suggested it was no ordinary Sunday for the kids at St. Francis Children’s Home. The usually subdued atmosphere in the alleyways around Kugahara Station in Ota Ward was punctured by shouts and laughter as the children worked themselves up for the much-anticipated Christmas Wish party.

The children at St. Francis are among a record 330 this year at six homes taking part in the third Christmas Wish program organized by Tokyo-based nonprofit Living Dreams.

“The holiday season can be especially difficult for these kids who are living apart from their family or have lost their family — so this is a great time of year to show a little extra love and attention to these homes,” explains Amy Moyers-Knopp, the NPO’s executive director. “The other key to this program is to hold it every year at the same home, so it’s not a one-time thing.”

Another aim of the parties is to get the wider community involved, through donating or, even better, taking part. Sponsoring companies contribute both funds and volunteers to the events, and some of the children at St. Francis obviously already knew some of the visitors, and quickly warmed to those they didn’t — slapping high fives, feasting on treats together and enjoying piggyback rides.

Gift-giving at the party is a chance “to do something a little extra special” for the children, who would usually only receive one present a year, on their birthday, says Moyers-Knopp.

After the children at St. Francis unwrapped their single Christmas gift ever so slowly, carefully folding and saving the wrapping paper, they showed their gratitude to the volunteers with hearty shouts of thanks. The older children then stepped up to help clean the recreation room and watch over the animated little ones.

Amid the party atmosphere, it’s easy to forget why the children are at St. Francis in the first place. The facility is one of 59 institutions in Tokyo and 564 nationwide that are home to some 35,000 children, many of whom have suffered abuse, neglect or the loss of one or both parents.

And the number is growing. Recent amendments to the Child Abuse Prevention Law that expanded the definition of child abuse and neglect, as well as an increasing public awareness of these issues, have resulted in an influx of children into institutional care. Between 2000 and 2007 the number of children in state homes increased by 6.7 percent and the number of facilities grew 2.2 percent, according to the latest government figures. In some homes, 75 percent of the children Living Dreams personnel encounter have been abused.

“Now, many children in the homes have some traumatic experiences,” explains Miki Matsumaru, a clinical psychologist who also runs the Living Dreams training program for staff at affiliated children’s homes. “They used to be the children who don’t have parents, but recently many children (at the homes) have both parents or a single parent.”

Some of the children have had to cope with the hospitalization or incarceration of one or more parents, others with family financial issues.

“Most of the kids in these children’s homes are in fact not actually orphans,” adds Moyers-Knopp. “The term ‘children’s home’ was introduced many years ago because it has less negative connotations associated with it” than “orphanage.”

Despite being well organized, fairly clean, safe and providing for the essential daily needs of the children, many homes have become overcrowded and some resemble run-down dormitories, says Moyers-Knopp. With its homey, almost surrogate-family atmosphere, St. Francis is more the exception than the norm. But this is changing.

“The homes are (being) improved to make them like home environments,” says Matsumaru. “The new homes are like houses that children live in like a family, in small numbers.”

Even so, adequate food, shelter and contact with staff can never fill the void left by the withdrawal of parental love. The children are also subtly left out of the social fabric of a country so famously committed to family and blood relations. Though slowly dissipating, the stigma of not having a family, or at least foster or adoptive parents, is still a fact of life for these children.

Japan’s koseki family registry system is also a major obstacle preventing these children from finding a loving foster home or being adopted. Transferring a child from one family record to another can be a bureaucratic nightmare — one reason why a child is much more likely to remain within the state home system until adulthood than have a chance to be a part of a new family.

“After 18, they have to leave the homes,” explains Matsumaru. “Many find a job that has somewhere to live, too, or they live by themselves. Some get some support from the family, work and live by themselves. Some get a higher education, if they are funded. Some children have their own family at a young age. In any case, most children are forced to live by themselves.”

Unfit parents or next of kin who choose not to care for their child still legally have the final say over a child’s fate. Many would rather see a child in an institution than taken in by a “nonblood” family, a stance based partly on a mistrust of qualified “stranger” foster parents and, in some cases, just plain jealousy. In the end, the majority of the children will remain in the homes until forced to set out on their own with little or no support when they turn 18.

“We also hear about children who still have a parent in the picture — and that oftentimes the children’s home is almost treated like a day care facility,” laments Moyers-Knopp. “There are those parents who lack the maturity and financial ability to care for their child on a regular basis. So there are cases we’ve heard about where a child has gone in and out of a home on several occasions. It is heartbreaking.”

While activists and organizations push to reform Japanese child welfare laws, Living Dreams will continue to focus on providing enriching opportunities for the children, says Moyers-Knopp.

“I think as we continue to develop and expand our offerings to homes, perhaps other organizations and local governments might take notice, and if that leads to even more support for some of these homes, we would be thrilled. But our primary role is to find meaningful ways we can support the homes.”

Still only three years young, Living Dreams now boasts 29 regular volunteer team members, 11 of whom are foreigners, and a network of others who help out on a when-needed basis.

The Christmas Wish parties are only a small part of Living Dreams’ work. The group works throughout the rest of the year with 29 children’s homes in and around Tokyo, with each home housing roughly 50 children. The NPO’s flagship initiative is the LAST program, which melds together learning, arts, sports and technology activities designed to draw on the diverse interests and talents of the children.

By adding an element of continuity to the children’s lives with one-on-one adult interaction and programs that tap into creativity, critical thinking and physical endurance, the activities aim to boost the children’s confidence and help them grow skills they can carry into adulthood.

“It’s not rocket science, but simply offering a few other options for children to develop into self-confident and responsible adults,” explains Moyers-Knopp. “And since so many of these children are dealing with PTSD-related issues, oftentimes they don’t have the ability to focus on academic work and perform well — they need to find another outlet that will help them shine and feel good about themselves.”

Only around 9 percent of the children from the homes go on to attend university, compared to the national average of 50 percent, and, according to a 2005 study by the National Children’s Home Association, 12 percent of these students drop out after one year. It’s easy for them to feel overwhelmed juggling part-time jobs to cover tuition without the financial — let alone emotional — support of a family. To address this, Living Dreams hopes to develop a small scholarship fund to enable motivated students to attend university or technical schools, while at the same time raising a broader awareness of the need for this kind of support, particularly within government.

The Living Dreams team caters to the specific needs of the children’s homes based on an initial assessment that includes interviews with a home’s staff, says Moyers-Knopp.

“We place tutors for English and other academic subjects on a semiregular basis based on a home’s need. We also place other types of instructors with homes such as dance, music, yoga and aikido. We sort of act as a match-making service in this respect.”

Not all homes welcome Living Dreams’ input on top of the daily grind of managing schedules, meals and ensuring the children’s safety. Cultural and communication barriers also pose challenges to introducing a program concept to staff and getting them equally excited about the possibilities. Nevertheless, the positive responses from the children and deep impact on even a few lives make every effort worth these initial difficulties for Living Dreams volunteers.

For Moyers-Knopp, it’s all about the “little moments.” For example, one young girl loved the hip-hop sessions so much at the past two Designing Artists Academy (DAA) summer camps that she asked her home director if he could find a dance teacher so she could continue learning. Living Dreams sourced out an instructor through its connections.

“This is exactly what we want to see happen. Interests develop, and a little bit of confidence can inspire! This girl has been dancing now for a couple of months and she’s shown amazing progress and just simple joy for what she is learning! Not only is she learning how to hip hop, she also has regular exposure to one-on-one adult interaction — a positive role model for her to learn from.”

Other beneficiaries of the NPO’s programs have become positive role models themselves to the younger children.

At an early age, Chinatsu’s parents divorced and her father disappeared from the scene soon after. Her mother died a few years later of cancer, and she was brought up in a children’s home. Now a young adult, Chinatsu is in her second semester of a three-year course at design college thanks to the generosity of a certain medium-size company and a number of caring individuals.

“We are seeing her true potential shine through — in terms of overall maturity and motivation levels,” says Moyers-Knopp. “She even came to help volunteer at DAA this summer to continue that circle of giving back.”

For Moyers-Knopp, Chinatsu’s story epitomizes a great deal of what Living Dreams is about.

“The real key in our minds here is that this support is not just about handing over the money, but the overall desire to help this student succeed — at school and in life,” she says. “We have set up a safety net of volunteer mentors in collaboration with another NPO to assist the student on daily life- and school-related issues. This particular program really encapsulates our organization’s motto of ‘Make a difference and make it LAST.’ “

With plans to continue and expand its core programs in 2011, the Living Dreams team hopes to increase its volunteer base and eventually spread its efforts to children’s homes across Japan.

Moyers-Knopp’s message to any would-be volunteers: Expect to receive just as much, if not more, than you give. “Most of our team members also work full-time jobs and still manage to find the passion and time to devote to the organization,” she enthuses. “For the volunteers, it’s those small moments that keep all of us going, make us smile and think we’re headed in the right direction.”

To learn more about Living Dreams and how you can volunteer or make a donation, please visit livingdreams.jp. Send comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp