Our nonprofit foundation, JOEE, was featured in the spring issue of Japan Harvest magazine from JEMA, an organization that supports and encourages the Christian missionary community in Japan.
The article, “Surprised by JOEE,” details the journey of our growing nonprofit foundation as we seek to bring joyful and engaging English lessons to children in institutionalized care here in Japan.
The text of the article is included below:
Have you ever been swept off your feet by a wave or a powerful idea? Or launched into an adventure with no map or compass? It’s not exactly comfortable—that feeling of helpless exhilaration mixed with joy and uncertainty, inundated by a large dollop of panic. You’re out of your depth and not at all sure that you can handle being this far from shore.
Being flung into something new
Recently prompted (or possibly flung by a heavenly gust of inspiration!) to start a non-profit organization called JOEE (Joyful Opportunity English Education), I don’t yet feel that I can handle the trajectory upon which I have embarked. I’m desperately trusting God to keep me afloat.
I continue to work at Christian Academy in Tokyo as a teacher–librarian, but every Thursday and Friday afternoon, I pack up puppets and props and go to teach English to youngsters at St. Francisco Children’s Home in Ota-ku. The ultimate goal is to provide basic language instruction and native-level pronunciation skills so that when the children exit the care system at the age of 18, they have a marketable job skill and the confidence to work anywhere in the world. My students sing songs, act out words, and play games while learning basic English vocabulary. Puppets who speak only English help make the lessons fun. It’s both exhausting and exhilarating. But I’d like to do it even more, and so next year I will work full-time for the non-profit. This is a frightening leap of faith for me, with no guarantees of income or success, but I feel compelled nonetheless. I trust that God will provide me with the grace I need.
And I do need grace. I have never been all that graceful (I used to break at least a toe a year!), so this new challenge has not been easy. Yes, it may be 2020 now, but I don’t have 20–20 vision nor am I ready for any sort of Olympic endeavor. I don’t know what God was thinking when I was led into this undertaking (or possibly undertow) that has pulled me out into deep waters. I’m approaching 60, for goodness sake. Aren’t I too old for this? As an answer, the God of Abraham and Sarah reminds me that age is no impediment to being launched on a mission.
Let me give you a personal metaphor for what being launched feels like. Every summer, I escape the muggy Tokyo heat and head for Lake Nojiri in Nagano, where I volunteer as a sailing instructor. Nojiri is a quiet lake with small waves and small adventures. But even small lakes can sometimes surprise you. One day, while I was sailing my little four-meter-long Laser dinghy and reveling in the power of pre-typhoon wind and waves, a sudden gust slammed my sail smack down into the water and launched me off the deck in a soaring arc into the sodden sail.
Starting JOEE has felt like being flung into that sail. I had been swept up by an idea that was much too powerful for me to handle. I know what I can do well: I can teach children and make them excited about learning, I can create silly voices for puppets, I can tell stories, and I can capture and hold the tenuous attention of toddlers through an entire story time. But I’m also painfully aware of my shortcomings: I’m certainly not a non-profit creator, a fundraiser, or an administrator. Business plans, numbers, and red tape tie me up in the kinds of knots that a sailor of my meager experience could never undo. So how did I find myself wrapped up in this latest adventure?
The feeling that I was supposed to do something to help began a couple of years ago. In March 2018, I read the tragic story about Yua Funato, a five-year old who died from abuse in her home. The police found a notebook where Yua had written heart-breaking pleas for the abuse to stop. She should have been rescued in time. She should have been placed into the safe care of a children’s home in Tokyo. I was haunted by Yua’s story. I knew that more should be done to help the 45,000 children in Japan who have been rescued and are now living in institutionalized care.
In August of that year, while sitting with other children’s authors during a writer’s conference in Los Angeles, the idea of creating a way to bring compelling, play-based English-language education to young children in orphanages began percolating in my mind. Literature and poetry for children have always been my passion, but so far I had only been successful at getting some of my individual poems published. All of my attempts to publish stories or collections of poems have merely taught me what rejection letters feel like. My motivation as a writer has always been to educate and bring joy to kids. Making a child laugh is a satisfying success. Getting published, however, is a different story. So if writing for children was not going to pan out for me, how else could I help children while living in Japan? That is what I started pondering in that room in Los Angeles.
I have always admired families who’ve adopted children. One of my childhood friends had certainly saved the life of the boy that she and her husband had adopted. And I knew several wonderful families here in Japan who had adopted children. Most of these families could speak Japanese, of course. They could communicate with their adopted children in their native language. My French and Norwegian skills did not help me much here in Japan, but I could teach English to children. Perhaps I could teach English in orphanages.
I began to pray about it. I know full well that the results of prayer are powerful, but I was not prepared for what happened next. I began to be confronted with stories about orphans and began meeting people who were interested in helping with my project. Bible verses about orphans kept popping up: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18 ESV); “The Lord protects the foreigners among us. He cares for the orphans and widows” (Psalm 146:9 NLT); “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27 NLT).
At the end of August, I realized I would need a competent, bilingual administrator to help make this project work. When I mentioned my dream of starting a non-profit foundation to a friend, Hiroko, she shocked the socks off of me by replying that she had just quit her job that very day and that helping me with a non-profit foundation to help orphans was exactly what she wanted to do! God’s timing was perfect.
Within a year, Hiroko had managed to register us as a non-profit foundation able to accept tax-deductible donations from individuals and large corporations. In the meantime, I had set up a website (JOEE.jp) and gathered friends who could help to serve on JOEE’s board of directors. We are currently teaching English lessons twice a week at one children’s home and a friend is teaching one lesson a month at another children’s home. The children at the home I go to have begun using English words and phrases in their daily life and singing songs in English, surprising their caregivers with their good pronunciation.
Although we have had some success already, JOEE has a long way to go with fundraising and promotion. I am well aware that this small non-profit might eventually fail, but I am determined to do the best I can with the resources I have. The Holy Spirit sends the inspiration and wind, and I merely need to use that power to move forward. I must admit that I have been surprised by JOEE. Life is an adventure, and I am blessed to be part of this astounding voyage.
Note: If you are interested in volunteering at JOEE, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.