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Bringing the great outdoors to Japan’s underserved children

by

Contributing Writer

Almost 39,000 children are under government supervision in Japan, and 85 percent are institutionalized in various homes around the nation, according to Human Rights Watch. Last August, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare made good on its 2016 revisions to the Child Welfare Act by announcing a new plan of “family-based care,” but in the meantime, a local nonprofit organization is working hard to bring the outside world to these institutionalized children: the world of nature.

Mirai no Mori provides life-changing outdoor programs for neglected or orphaned children in Japan. It started in 2011, when English Adventure, an outdoor educational company, decided to give back to the wider community. Leading the corporate social responsibility initiative was Canadian Jeff Jensen, at that time a program manager at English Adventure.

Jensen contacted Living Dreams, a Tokyo-based NPO working with orphanages, to get advice on how they might find children in need. Living Dreams put Jensen in touch with various institutions, and English Adventure began regularly inviting underserved children to their camps.

“We quickly realized that this was something we can do that will actually affect change in a lot of people, not just in the youth themselves, but in the care workers, in our staff and volunteers,” says Jensen. “We realized it was getting too big to continue being under the umbrella of English Adventure.”

Jensen officially co-founded Mirai no Mori in 2013 with English Adventure President Dave Paddock. They appointed Kozue Oka, an English Adventure employee who had been specializing with the initiative, as Mirai no Mori’s executive director and only full-time staffer in 2015.

Growing from these roots, Mirai no Mori is committed to its mission: using outdoor adventures and communicating in English to provide positive role models for marginalized children. English and the outdoors together are natural, Oka believes.

“From my direct experience, I can tell the children, ‘You don’t have to be returnees or a foreigner to communicate in English; just take your time, and have fun.’ That’s one of the reasons I chose to work for Mirai no Mori,” Oka says.

“English is a core element as it is a language to bring everyone together,” Oka says. “Having bilingual staff is important. You need enough Japanese to communicate with the children, but English is the shared language among staff. We always get around 40 percent returning staff, and work with a lot of freelance writers, teachers and students.” For a recent summer camp, they brought on 19 staffers from 11 different countries.

In the three years since its official start, Mirai no Mori has grown its support network across the Kanto and Tohoku regions, and plans its expansion carefully.

“In the beginning, Living Dreams gave us around eight different homes as suggestions,” Oka says. “Whenever we get an opportunity to connect with more children, we canvas the government’s list of homes in the Tohoku and Kanto regions. Slowly, our support has been growing through sending out new invitations.”

Now servicing 20 different homes, Jensen adds: “Homes have very different cultures; some are run more business-style, some are more open to new ideas and new experiences for the children, so our approach depends on the specific home. We are careful not to reach out and expand too quickly, as we don’t want to grow beyond what we can handle as an organization.

“One of our key priorities is to create long-term relationships with these youths. We want to combine the outdoors and English communication with ongoing mentoring. It is important we offer true role models, not just a one-off Disneyland experience. We can slowly gain trust and build relationships, and hopefully be in a position to help the children change trajectory.”

To this end, Mirai no Mori recently expanded its on-going Leaders in Training program.

“We were able to fully develop the program and take it to another level from April 2016, thanks to corporate sponsorship,” Jensen says. “We work with a small group of high school students on a monthly basis to build leadership and communication skills through outdoor experiences.

“For example, one of the milestones these students are looking at over the year is to prepare for an overnight expedition without adult supervision. They’re planning the route, their food, all the logistics, the budgets. As a team, everyone has a separate responsibility. We are slowly helping them gain the skills, knowledge and leadership necessary, but due to the generous donations of various corporate sponsors, we are also supporting them with the actual gear. By the end of the year, with the help of a range of outdoor companies, the students will not only be able to go on the expedition, but also after the program, they’ll be able to say to their friends, ‘Let’s go hiking,’ and they’ll have all the gear.”

For Mirai no Mori, it’s all about growing positive futures for Japan’s institutionalized children, and it’s obviously flourished.

As one Leader in Training attests: “I want to utilize the knowledge and skills I’ve learned during the LIT Program when I go to the mountains or river, in order to protect other people. Now I’ve become interested in working in a field related to the outdoors in the future, so I want to make use of this program to make my dream come true.”

Send your queries and comments to lifelines@japantimes.co.jp.