At first glance, it may be hard to imagine that the children singing and jumping around at a gymnasium at Tokyo International School in Minato Ward have been separated from their parents and live in children’s homes.
About 60 children — aged between 6 to 16 — from six children’s homes in Tokyo participated in an art camp arranged by Living Dreams, a program created by the nonprofit organization International Educational Association for Children, which mainly supports orphans in Japan.
The group was established by Patrick Newell, a cofounder of Tokyo International School, where the camp was held. Throughout the year, the group offers children from 33 homes a variety of learning, arts, sports and technological programs.
The “Designing Artists Academy” camp started three years ago with the aim of providing the children with “an experience where they can explore, be creative and start to learn about themselves,” said Amy Moyers-Knopp, executive director of the program. The camp is being supported mainly by corporate funding.
According to a staff member from one of the homes, over half of the 60 children who now live in the institution are victims of child abuse. “They are children who had been brought to us by child consultation centers that thought that they needed to be separated from the parent(s) to avoid further abuse,” she said.
Many of the abused children have behavioral or emotional problems and some cannot concentrate when they take part in the camp, she noted. Some drop out of the session and do something else like reading manga or walking by themselves outside.
But when she asks them if they want to attend the camp the next day, “They say ‘Yes,’ ” she said.
“Some children can’t go back home during summer holidays, so it’s good for them to attend a program like this to refresh themselves. We really appreciate the support of the camp staff,” she added.
Through a two-week program with music and dancing sessions in the morning, and different art programs including drawing and painting, photography and crafts in the afternoon, children were taught by Japanese and foreign volunteer artists.
On the last day, children danced and sang a medley of several Japanese pop songs in front of an audience that included volunteers, sponsors and staff from children’s homes.
A pair of girls from a children’s home in Suginami Ward performed hip-hop dance. One of the girls, a 12-year-old who has taken part in the camp for two years in a row, said she was looking forward to this year’s event. “I felt empty when the camp ended last year,” she said.
The other, a 13-year-old, agreed. “The camp was really fulfilling. The teachers and volunteers were nice, and we made friends with kids from other homes, too,” she said.
Another 13-year-old girl from a children’s home in western Tokyo, who attended the crown-making class, said she really enjoyed making a veil.
“We don’t have the same kind of material at our home, and we can’t make artwork freely at school either, so I find it exciting to be able to make something using so much material,” she said.
“Most of the homes face staff shortages, and it’s hard for the children to get one-on-one attention. They need someone who would listen (to them),” camp director Kanako Seki said.
“I think more than anything, a lot of the kids are craving adults’ attention,” Moyers-Knopp added.
Due to this need, the team puts in an adult-mentoring aspect into the camp. The children are separated into five groups and take part in the sessions in those groups with an adult mentor for each group.
Tomomi Asako, one of the volunteer mentors, said she felt that a lot of the children were craving for loving care.
“The kids often held my hand and some of them suddenly hugged me. Even the older ones do that, too,” she said.
Over the next few years, Moyers-Knopp plans to develop the camp into a program that includes focused workshops where the older children can choose which session to take according to their interests.
“As a result of the dance workshop from last year’s camp, some of the children are now taking regular hip-hop dance and guitar lessons. You can see it continue (like this) and those are my favorite things (that happen in the camp),” she said. “It’s all about encouragement. We tell them, ‘You’re really good at dancing. You should keep doing this.’ And they find out that there are options out there for them to explore. Then, they start to feel empowered.”