Community Engagement: making a consistent, sustained commitment to serving and developing connection with others.
I have been involved in the Van der Poel Community Service team for 3 years now and it has been one of the most memorable and rewarding experiences of my time at YIS.
The Van der Poel committee works towards the welfare of children in two local orphanages and throughout the year, we engage in a number of activities that benefit the children such as outings and visits to the homes, as well as organising events such as preparing for and running a booth at a Bazaar held twice a year at one of the homes and the Orphanage Christmas party, a major event held at YIS, which involves the support of the whole YIS community.
I decided to join the Van der Poel committee because I felt as though this group truly demonstrated the important features of service. In my case, serving people took on more meaning when it came in the context of an actual relationship with people. I tried to contribute to a number of service activities during high school and while I understood the importance of community engagement, it often just became another item on my to-do list. In order for me to be genuinely engaged in service at school, I wanted to join an activity where I could really build meaningful relationships whilst also improving the welfare of the community and this is what being part of the Van der Poel committee allowed me to do.
Japan has a relatively low birth rate compared to other countries but this doesn’t stop children from being taken away from their parents for various legal reasons. Whilst building relationships with the children at the local orphanages, I’ve witnessed several problems that some of the children encounter when leaving the homes – these included lack of knowledge and life skills necessary for living independently, as well as a lack of support as they left to find jobs or continue with further education. As part of the Van der Poel committee, I helped fundraise to support the children as they began their independent journey and demonstrated consistent commitment to the service group by volunteering to participate in home visits as well as helping initiate, organise and prepare additional events throughout the year.
1. Home visits
Every visit I made to the orphanages were life-changing experiences – some of the children I met were the most loving, affectionate and talented people I’ve ever met. Our visits to the homes often consisted of engaging in physical activity with the children, teaching English, and most importantly, communicating with the children. Regardless of whether the children were feeling happy, sad or upset, I tried to encourage the importance of putting feelings into words. Children tend to develop their emotional skills from relationships with their parents but given that these children were lacking this, it was important for us to help them organise and regulate their emotions and help them develop their emotional skills.
To make the experience even more valuable and meaningful, I also made regular visits to the orphanages to teach dance 🙂 In my dance classes, I focussed on movement that encouraged awareness of the environment as well as the people surrounding them in hopes to help children find their confidence in self-expression and in communicating with their peers.
2. Taking leadership
Recently, I organised a trip to one of the orphanage homes to participate in their graduation ceremony and to celebrate the success of those who were parting ways and leaving the homes. As a leader, I was proud to take initiative and to bring in a bit of my creative side to the service group. Because so much of the events and activities in Vanderpoel so far have been initiated and organised by teachers, it was exciting to be able to organise a little project from scratch. Although we decided to participate in the ceremony purely to congratulate the children and say goodbye, it was still important that we could help them in some kind of way so my friend and I decided to make them cards as well as fundraise to purchase the children gift cards to spend on books and stationary 🙂
The importance of community engagement
Serving for others is something that always makes me feel empowered, especially when I get to witness the impacts I make, but being part of Van der Poel also made me realise things that I never would have understood otherwise. None of us liked it when our parents yelled at us for not studying properly or when we fought with our siblings but there was a concern behind every word that they said. Knowing that these children at the orphanage are lacking all those words of care, anger, love and all the feelings that parents express towards their children is what truly made me want to support them. One difference I see in serving at a local community level and on a global level is how much I’m able to see the differences I am making. I realise that it is only by working at a local community level that I can truly see how volunteering makes an important and lasting contribution, regardless of whether I’m working with a school, with an NGO, with wildlife, or with an orphanage. I recognise the issues that have arisen as orphanage volunteering has grown, and some of the incidents that have occurred as a result such as orphanages becoming tourist areas. However, I see a bigger problem in individuals and organisations encouraging people to “never volunteer at an orphanage”. As a Van der Poel member, I have learnt that volunteering at orphanages can provide an important source of hands-on support, energy and skill that can make huge differences to the lives of children, and how it can really have a positive flow-on effect to the wider community.