L.P. would like to volunteer at a Catholic orphanage in the Tohoku region, near the March 11 disaster areas, but isn’t sure how to get started.

I contacted Living Dreams, a nonprofit organization based in Tokyo that supports children living in orphanages (children’s homes) in Japan, and they suggested La Salle Home, affiliated with De La Salle Christian Brothers. The director of La Salle, Rodrigo Trevino, said they have all the volunteers they need through March 2013, but you are welcome to get in touch about future opportunities (call (022) 257-3801).

Ichinoseki Fujinoso in Iwate is another option. They don’t have a current need for volunteers, but if you are interested in helping in another way, they are accepting donations (through Living Dreams — see website below) toward rebuilding their children’s home, which was destroyed by the earthquake.

On the issue of volunteering at children’s homes in Japan, I spoke with Mikiko Matsumoto, executive director of Living Dreams, and Michael Maher King, founder of Smile Kids Japan, an NPO that promotes awareness of orphanages across the country and supports volunteers who regularly visit the homes.

Anyone interested in volunteering at a children’s home here should first of all bear in mind that children’s homes, or child welfare institutes (CWI), in Japan are very diverse, in terms of how they are run, their environment, religious affiliation, financial situation and location, among other factors. Over 33,000 children are currently living in CWI in Japan and at least 40 to 50 percent of those kids are victims of parental abuse or neglect. “Not many of the kids have lost both parents,” said Michael, “and there are a variety of reasons for their placements.”

When asked how easy it is for foreigners to volunteer at CWI, Mikiko pointed out that being able to speak Japanese is obviously a plus. If you don’t, bringing someone who speaks Japanese along with you is advisable. “Homes might be at a loss if someone who speaks no Japanese shows up at their door,” she explained.

Michael agreed, but added that he was able to “set up (a visit) with level 4 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and a Japanese friend.”

Other than Japanese ability, no special skills are required to volunteer. “All you need is a good heart to want to help children,” Mikiko said, but she also advises that “it should never become a burden for the homes.”

For example, “You cannot go directly to the homes and press them to deal with you,” Mikiko explained. “They have their own schedule, and volunteers should be most careful to respect that schedule.”

Instead of cold-calling a home or showing up at their doorstep unannounced, Mikiko suggests first contacting an organization that knows more about each home, such as Living Dreams, to help find a suitable place to lend a hand.

However, with the right connections, this isn’t always necessary. “If you have contacts that know the home, such as local elementary school teachers, their introduction makes the whole process a lot easier,” said Michael.

You might want to help out in the Tohoku area, but Michael believes volunteers can be more effective at a CWI in their own community. “We explain how to do this on the Smile Kids Japan website under the ‘how to’ section. You can approach a home and see if they would like any help.

“It seems to vary a great deal by prefecture and with different directors. In Mie a volunteer group visited four homes before one accepted them. I visited one that was delighted to have volunteers and then set up visits at a second home that was also very welcoming.

“The key is sustainability—these children have had a lot of disruption in their lives and benefit from building relationships and trust. They can be hurt by false hope.”

To find a nearby children’s home, please contact Living Dreams, check out the Smile Kids Japan website, search for jidōyōgoshisetsu (children’s home, orphanage) or gakuen (an educational institution) or visit your prefectural government’s welfare page.

You can find Living Dreams online at livingdreams.jp/main/ and the Smile Kids Japan website at www.smilekidsjapan.org.

Another organization worth checking out is Bridge For Smile (www.b4s.jp/en/index.html), which runs a home specifically for youths who have experienced abuse, neglect and other forms of maltreatment.

Ashley Thompson writes unique how-tos about living in Japan at www.survivingnjapan.com. Send queries to lifelines@japantimes.co.jp

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