Long-term Japan resident Divina Liza Sato was looking for a way to give back to the community that reflected her natural affinity with children. The result was JOYFUL (Japan Outreach Youth Foundation for Underprivileged Learners), a volunteer group that helps children both here in Japan and in her homeland of the Philippines.

With more than 20 years of experience as an English teacher under her belt, Sato opened her own conversation school in the western Tokyo bed town of Machida seven years ago.

Sato says she feels very much at home in Japan and wanted to take the support and kindness she has received and pay it forward. Drawing on her professional skills, she contacted a local children’s home in 2011 and began volunteer English lessons with the children.

Other foreign teachers at her school wanted to help, and volunteers from JOYFUL currently work with children at four homes in Tokyo and Kanagawa.

“We teach English, sing and play with the children. Looking at their happy faces makes it worth our time and effort,” says Sato. “We hold Halloween and Christmas parties for them as well.”

Currently almost 40,000 Japanese children under the age of 19 do not live with their parents for various reasons. Approximately 90 percent of these youngsters end up in institutionalized care in one of the country’s children’s homes or “orphanages.”

Only a small fraction of the children at such institutions are actually orphans, however. The vast majority have a parent or parents but have been removed from the family home for reasons that include parental neglect or abuse. Other people voluntarily place their children in such an institution.

In a society where fostering and adoption is still the exception rather than the norm, it isn’t uncommon for youngsters to spend their entire lives in such care until they “graduate” at 18 and then have to fend for themselves. These children often struggle to hold their own with peers in an education system where parents routinely pay for their kids to attend cram school and other after-school programs. Since most children’s homes operate on tight budgets, volunteers such as the folk from JOYFUL can make a genuine difference in the children’s lives.

Sato echoes this sentiment: “The children are eager to learn and always look forward to our classes, events and parties,” she says.

Sato has since expanded JOYFUL’s activities to her home country after seeing first-hand how some of the children were living.

“I visited the small village of Barangay Libertad near my hometown. I was very saddened and touched. I talked to my close friends and planned on how to help the people there.”

One of the results was a playground for the local children, with swings, seesaws and benches.

This time last year was a sad period for the entire Philippines, in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. The catastrophic storm hit in early November 2013, killing 6,300 people and injuring nearly 30,000 more.

In addition to gathering clothing and donations for typhoon relief, Sato and her friends decided to spread some festive cheer by throwing a Christmas party for villagers in Libertad, organizing 250 boxed lunches as well as a dance contest, games and prizes.

Sato was moved to tears by the experience.

“I cried when I gave my speech, encouraging the children to study hard and be good,” she says. “They told me it was their first Christmas party on Christmas Day where somebody had come to visit and celebrate with them. I got a lot of hugs and kisses, not only from the children but from elders as well.”

Sato has applied for JOYFUL to receive NPO status as an official charitable organization.

“Honestly, it’s a real challenge to keep things going, especially gathering new members,” she says candidly. “I’m not that good at socializing and networking, so as of now we only have 15 members, plus the fact that I’m running a school, so my time is divided between my work and the organization.”

Sato is very grateful to her Filipino teaching colleagues who help with JOYFUL’s activities, and the Japanese friends who offer donations to help fund them.

The next project on the horizon is building a library for the elementary school in Barangay Libertad. Sato admits that the plan is an ambitious one, since JOYFUL needs to raise approximately ¥2 million, or 800,000 Philippine pesos, to see it come to fruition.

A Christmas gospel concert fund-raiser will take place in Machida on Dec. 14, and there are also plans for a spring bazaar next May. Among the performers at the concert will be the children and staff of the Bott Memorial Home, one of the places benefitting from JOYFUL’s English volunteers.

“I want to gather more members and volunteers so we can teach English to the children at children’s homes throughout Japan, as well as help the less-fortunate children in the Philippines,” Sato says. “Working at the children’s homes is both fun and very fulfilling. They are my extended family.”

The Christmas charity gospel concert will be held on Dec. 14 from 6 p.m. in the 109 building in Machida, Tokyo. For more details, visit www.facebook.com/groups/joyful2013 or email joyfulgroup.japan@gmail.com. Do you know about a citizens’ group or of any other helpful resources? Your comments, questions and story ideas: lifelines@japantimes.co.jp

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