NPO makes a difference for orphans by providing mentors

By Jessica Ocheltree

For an orphaned child in Japan, life can seem pretty bleak. The cultural importance placed on blood relationships here means the chances of getting a foster or adoptive family are remote. The child will most likely grow up in an underfunded and understaffed group home, where the high caregiver-to-child ratio means they probably won’t have an adult in their life to love, guide and motivate them, one on one.

And the future doesn’t look much better. The college enrollment rate for kids in homes is only around 8%, compared to the national average of around 50%. Many of them end up working low-paying jobs that don’t even cover rent—little wonder that they often suffer from low motivation and mental health issues.

One local organization is hoping to make a difference for some of these orphaned children by providing mentoring experiences with positive adult role models. Living Dreams, a registered NPO, works with 23 children’s homes in the Tokyo area, bringing individual and corporate volunteers to mentor kids in the so-called “LAST” areas—learning, arts, sports and technology.

Executive Director Amy Moyers explains the importance of reaching out. “When a child is exposed to an experience or activity that opens up their perspective and allows them to ‘let go’ and dream a little bit, it’s amazing how those experiences can permeate into many other areas of their life,” she says. “Most of these children have far more potential than many people realize.”

Moyers feels that the NPO’s activities promoting athletics and the arts, such as its yearly art camp, are just as important as its learning and technology components. “With many of these children who have been abused, you have to think of them as bruised on the inside and out,” she says. “They have PTSD symptoms, trust issues, confidence issues, and an overall sense of confusion about their predicament. So arts and sports can be a great source of release for kids to express emotions in a positive environment.”

Moyers, who has a background in marketing and publishing, brought her knack for establishing strategic partnerships to the NPO. Living Dreams has worked with major companies in Japan, such as Shinsei Bank, Barclays Capital and Kawaijuku, to help them achieve their corporate responsibility goals. Some provide funding or donate goods, while others encourage their employees to donate their time.

Individual volunteers are equally welcome, though. The organization is looking to provide as many different opportunities as possible, and believes that everyone has something to offer, whether it’s a knack for explaining programming or just a sympathetic ear.

According to Moyers, the hardest part of their work isn’t finding money or volunteers, but changing the thinking of staff working at the children’s homes. “The home staff tend to be very practical, given that kids living in homes have an uphill battle to carve out a better path for themselves,” she explains. “The challenge is to diplomatically shift the home thinking from ‘managing expectations down’ to ‘encouraging some dreams.’” After all, sometimes all you need is a little hope.

To find out more about Living Dreams or if you are interested in volunteering, email

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (

© Japan Today

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Well done Amy! It's good to see organizations like yours making a difference in the lives of so many children! I've done many volunteer activities for orphanages in my local area and the kids love it (and need it!) Keep up the excellent work!

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Awesome, so nice to see foreigners investing in Japan.

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I think this is great!

The cultural importance placed on blood relationships here means the chances of getting a foster or adoptive family are remote.

This is what I don't understand about Japan sometimes. There is much emphasis on blood relationships, yet I see many families that don't speak to each other or interact. Like in those cases of missing centarions, how can someone not speak to their grand or great grandparents or elderly members of their family and not know that they have been dead for years; yet these same people would probably look down on the children in these homes.

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“The challenge is to diplomatically shift the home thinking from ‘managing expectations down’ to ‘encouraging some dreams.’” After all, sometimes all you need is a little hope.

I don't think that only applies to orphanages, but to a lot of people in general in Japan. Especially those who are struggling to try to get into the "right school" and find out that they don't or they can't becuase they didn't have the right background.

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This is one of the most encouraging stories I have read here in a long time. What is kind of sad though is that it took an expat to do something for these kids.

Slightly off topic, but there is an orphanage and shelter for homeless people connected to the (Catholic) kindergarten my son attends. Thankfully they are well-staffed, but unfortunately chronically underfunded. This year they asked for donations from the parents of kindergarten kids to help give these people a brighter Christmas. The kindergarten has about 180 kids and most are well-off. Most parents take their kids to school in an Audi or Mercedes or Lexus. One mum even takes her kid to school in a Ferrari. So how much did they manage to collect over a 2 month period from the kindergarten mums - 6man. Pretty stingy if you ask me - and that is the problem with much of society - apathy towards others.

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There's also a national programme called "Smile Kids Japan" (smilekidsjapan[dot]org). They do a lot of good work, and with not even a fraction of the funding that Living Dreams has.

Smile Kids Japan probably has a chapter in your prefecture. Normally this is organised by the JETs in the prefecture.

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Frungy, Cheers, thanks for the info

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So how much did they manage to collect over a 2 month period from the kindergarten mums - 6man. Pretty stingy if you ask me - and that is the problem with much of society - apathy towards others.

Pretty sad story. Hate to say it, but the only way some people will give is unless they some celebrity doing it, or they will be there for an event. Then I am sure that they will all be there trying to give the most to be "seen."

I hope that this organization can keep up the good work. I'll give if asked.

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I'll just add that the "blood relationship" thing is getting pretty thin among young people. It was strong in the grandparents generation. I doubt that will be a count against these kids as they grow up. Governments should invest in kids rather than bombs, anyway.

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Friends of mine - a lovely couple (Japanese) have been doing volunteer work at a shelter/orphanage for years. They grew quite attached to a little girl - orphaneed - and she came to their house for special visits, xmas etc.

They finally decided they'd like to adopt her.


the girls aunt (who had next to nothing to do with the child) and who as the closest adult relative, refused permission - because she couldn't stand the thought of her living with "other blood".

She wouldn't take the girl in herself but preferred her to be institutionalized rather than brought up by strangers.

Just cruel.

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I think it's nice when well-meaning foreigners come here to tell the Japanese how to run things, but I kind of wish they'd look in their own back yards first.

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shinjukuboy at 04:23 PM JST - 22nd December I doubt that will be a count against these kids as they grow up.

Shinjukuboy, I don't think you're thinking this through. Without parents, grandparents, brothers or sisters these kids face a lot of barriers. They can't find a guarantor for an apartment, job, or loan, and Japan still pretty much runs on the guarantor system. These orphanages are understaffed and the staff are deeply concerned about these kids' privacy because of the social stigma of being an orphan so while they would probably be guarantors they often refuse because it would require disclosing the nature of the relationship.

Tessa at 10:00 PM JST - 22nd December I think it's nice when well-meaning foreigners come here to tell the Japanese how to run things, but I kind of wish they'd look in their own back yards first.

Yeah, but they're here now and they're doing something good, and when they get home they'll probably keep up the good work there too. The simple fact is that in the eight times I've visited the orphanage in my area I've never once seen a Japanese visitor, and these kids are so glad that someone is coming to visit.

Do good where you are, because you're there. Don't wait until tomorrow, or until you get home, or any of the thousand other excuses you use to salve your conscience that you're going to do something tomorrow or the next day. Do something today.

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I think it's nice when well-meaning foreigners come here to tell the Japanese how to run things, but I kind of wish they'd look in their own back yards first.

If you are living in Japan then it IS your own backyard. I would love to do voluntary work for a childrens home in my area, but I don't even know how to find them - where can you get that kind of info?

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I think it's nice when well-meaning foreigners come here to tell the Japanese how to run things, but I kind of wish they'd look in their own back yards first.

So people should ignore a problem staring them in the face simply because the country they come from hasn't solved every social problem yet? If everyone used that kind of logic, then nothing would get done because NOBODY has all of society's little ills solved.

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@Frungy What you say is true. But family ties are getting thin (like "blood relations") and now you can find companies that will do these things for you. Pay one months rent, and a company be your guarantor and will cover rent for the duration of a contract if you can't pay, etc. Same for a loan. Teachers can guarantor jobs. People don't expect so much from families these days, and lots of families are disfunctional. Children sent their parents to homes for the elderly rather than take care of them. In the case the Aunt mentioned above, she probably just feels less guilty having the girl institutionalized than having a loving family take over what she should be doing.

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Tessa, the volunteers most likely come from countries that don't even have orphanages, and where many people are willing to be foster parents. Japanese orphans are victims of primitive social attitudes and need any help they can get, even from foreigners.

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Orphanages, in western countries, are usually known as "residential children's homes." In the UK, 14% of in-care children - not necessarily orphans - reside in these homes (the others are in foster care). Money is a constant issue. The homes have been described by at least one committee as "joyless, even cruel institutions, warehousing the most problematic children until they get dumped out on the street."

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I discovered that there are children who have both parents and yet need help. The parents are sometimes misguided and thus the children are helpless and suffering.There should also be organisations that can help adults to do the right thing in bringing up children whether it is their own or someoneelses. Frungy's example aunt is one of them. How can she deprive the child of what she does not want to give? Sorry but she is an idiot.

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I think the lady who brings the kid in he Ferrari is suffering from low self-esteem. She is relying on the Ferrari to give her that. Poor thing.

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Correction. Not Frungy's example aunt but Browny1's.

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Frungy - I love your comments and outlook. Keep up the great work.

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A lot of orphanages actually appreciate it if someone came to teach the kids English!! Smaller kids would enjoy singing and dancing (and you can bring your own kids to join them, too!) and older kids would enjoy practicing/learning simple English conversations and etc. You can search for 児童福祉施設 (child welfare facilities) in your city/town, just google and there should be a list of those facilities.

One thing I have been told by several orphanages is that if you've decided to do something with the orphans, you should not just do it one time and quit.. you should do it on a regular basis so that the kids can expect you to return, and that's so important to let them know that YOU are going to return to them.

I know someone (a Japanese guy) who goes to a few orphanages outside of Tokyo several times a year to fix their bicycles and teach small kids how to ride a bicycle. He's busy so he can't visit often but he goes back to the same orphanages several times a year and been doing it for like 5 years, and so kids know him and they enjoy the time with him so much.

I also know a woman who tutor at an orphanage.. she teaches junior-high, high-school-age kids after school. Facilities usually don't have enough money for those teenagers to go to juku so she goes there to help out with home-work or prepare for exams and etc.

The key is --- to continue... Doesn't have to be every week or every month, but once you promise you return, you have to.

Money donation is great and they need it, but they also love it when the same people come visit and enjoy the time with them :)

There's also a system that you get to bring an orphan to your home during summer/winter break or some weekends AFTER you visiting the orphanage for several months on a regular basis so that the orphan and you build trust. This system is for orphans to experience family, and instead of those orphans going to different families each time, they connect one family and one orphan and the child spends weekends/holidays with the same family until they are older. This, is a commitment, you are not a foster family, you are not adopting the child, but you become his/her family in certain ways. In Tokyo, this system is called Friend Home System (フレンドホーム制度), and many other prefectures have the same or similar system, just different name. I couldn't find Friend Home system website in English but if you're interested, google フレンドホーム制度 if you have someone who can translate for you...

Anyways.. There are many ways you can contribute other than donating money. Of course, donating money is excellent but it's not all you can do :)

This article made me happy.

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I discovered that there are children who have both parents and yet need help.

When you go to many child welfare facilities/ group homes, there are actually lots of kids who have at least one parent but cannot live with the parent because of certain reasons like abuse or/and financial reasons and etc.. There are not many orphanages that only take orphans. Many of those facilities have kids who have families that they cannot come back to. There are also facilities that ONLY take those children who have parent(s) but were severely abused and have mental problems because of that -- sad.

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I reiterate: why are you doing something in Japan that you would never bother with in your own country?

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Tessa: Ver nasty comments about those trying to do good. How do you know they would not bother in their own country?

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that's exactly what i was going to say, too.. Tessa - what's your problem? people wherever they are and wherever they are from, doesn't matter.. they are doing something good and since those people live in japan now, to me it seems like an excellent idea to contribule within japan, and they're working together with japanese people and i don't see any negatives while i see lots of positives.

you don't know what they are doing in their own countries, so i'd refrain from making a comment like yours..

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Why don't you take a look at their website and you will notice one of the founders is Japanese.

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Background checks?

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Tessa it is alright to help anyone in need is ok. Even if you have not been doing it in your own country, do from any place you are comfortable with. I kind of understand that sometimes even i get put off when someone says NPO, funding, dinations etc. I usually try to help on my own, the people around me. Yes, sometimes it could all turn about to be a bad experience.

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Okay, point taken. Sorry if I sounded nasty.

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I want to add, because I feel very guilty about my previous unwarranted rude remarks, that I myself was in care for two weeks at the age of 13, due to family problems. It was only a short time in my life, but it has continued to affect me since. My temporary carers were extremely kind and gentle folk, and in that short time I also met a few other people concerned with my case (such as teachers, social workers, counsellors, etc) who were also extremely kind and caring and clearly wanted what was best for me. However, it seems to me now that most of them simply popped into my life once, promised me the moon on a stick (or at least some semblance of happiness) and then disappeared forever. There was no continuity whatsoever. They came and they went, just like that.

It was only two short weeks in my life, and it continues to colour my relationships even now. I am still plagued with issued of trust, security, and survival, even into my thirties, and I don't think I am ever going to be able to marry or have children.

Please, if you are going to get involved with troubled children, even if you have the best of intentions, as I'm sure you do, then BE CONSISTENT (Fishy's post above had it right). Either show up regularly, or don't show up at all. Don't do this kind of work just to stroke your egos, or put brownie points on your CVs. Do it because you are here for the long haul.

Thanks for hearing me out. I've never talked about this to anyone before.

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Tessa- thanks for saying what you've said :) (hugs):)

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Tessa, that was very brave to put that out. I admire you for it. I think it's also very helpful to share it, and hopefully a lot of well-meaning people who haven't really thought things through enough will examine their motives and their commitment before giving vulnerable people hope and then just dropping them. It makes me think of things a friend of mine told me of her own experiences in care, and I've watched the way she treats other people utterly and totally respectfully, and handles every relationship with the greatest care. She's actually my role model in so many ways, and reading your post made me understand even better why being consistent is so important. In fact, I've tried to learn from her, and whenever I've come across vulnerable children in the school system here, I've tried to give them a spark of self-belief, and a little weekly dose of positiveness.

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Tessa thanks for sharing. With all that you always sound positive, atleast that is what I decipher from your posts. Adults can be too complex and way too selfish sometimes. This is what breaks my heart. The adults do some irresponsible thing and let the children pay for their mistakes. As for the people coming forward to help, I wish they realise the sensitivity of the matter. At the same time, there are people who would love to show love and concern. But there are limitations too. Some cannot afford to do it due to time and resources. As the crow flies and Frungy have said it: do whatever you can. Even some kind words mean so much at times. Tessa, just continue to play the game. You never know, you might find all that you lost.

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