Sam Allen: Volunteer Circle

For my Spring semester CIP, I participated in a Volunteer Circle composed of students from all of Kyoto’s many universities. I knew that I wanted to get involved in some sort of volunteer activities, and that I would like to do so among peers of my own age. But what really caught my interest was their slogan, posted on their website. Through volunteer activities, this circle aims to “Create warm, family-like relationships with everyone we meet”. I was impressed by this sentiment, and realized I wanted to be a part of such a circle.

After attending the orientation meeting, I was a little nervous. This circle is only composed of Japanese university students, and I was worried that misunderstandings on my part would get in the way of their usual volunteer activities, and I wasn’t sure how kids at the elementary school we volunteered at would react to a foreigner.

However, when I went to try out the volunteer activities, I found that I didn’t have to worry all that much. Aside from reading kanji, I was able to communicate with everyone fairly well, and at my first activity, where we picked up trash around Kyoto with another volunteer group of elderly Kyoto locals, I was able to make friends with the other first timers.

Having officially joined the circle and assumed my nickname “Haribo”, I began attending the weekly planning meetings. There, we discussed our future volunteer plans, including the contents of the activities as well as assuring the safety of the participants. While I wasn’t able to contribute much at first, I enjoyed being a part of the discussion, and little by little, I started talking with other members.

My first activity at the elementary school went far better than expected. Rather than be nervous around me, a foreigner, one of the boys wanted to play with me exclusively, and, seeing us play, the other children joined in as well. The actual activity was a simple cooking lesson, where we made okonomiyaki and fruit punch. While some of the boys were a little rowdy during the explanation, everyone seemed to enjoy the activity. Under the guidance of the other member in my group, a senior in college, the kids cooperated with each other and everything went smoothly. From then on, I really felt part of the group. Little by little, I was approached by other members, and rather than feeling as an outsider in their group, I felt that I had a place to belong.

The second time around at the elementary school, I played tag with the kids, and then we went inside to make picture frames. While the kids in my group were really wild, and would often run around, distracting other groups, we somehow managed to keep everyone under control. It was a little troublesome, but a worthwhile experience.

At this point, I was invited to the “Graduation Party”, where the efforts of the seniors who would be graduating were acknowledged, and the underclassmen thanked the seniors for their guidance and support. I was glad to be there – while I never realized just how big the group was (over 50 members!), I had become close with one of the seniors, and was thrilled to be included.

Of course, this transition to a full-fledged member of the group did not take place immediately. I would try to make conversation with the people sitting next to me before meetings, and I made sure to remember names and chat with the people I had met. More than anything, my actual participation in the group really got things moving. Once the members saw that I was actively participating in the activities (and was able to communicate), they felt more at ease carrying on a conversation with me. It certainly wasn’t easy, but once I got a feel for the activities, continuing to participate every week allowed me to build connections with my peers.

I’ll be sad to have to leave so soon after finding such a wonderful group, but being a part of this circle even for a short while enriched my semester. Regardless of nationality, I was able to find a place where I was able to touch other people’s lives, even in a small way, and, in return, form warm, family-like relationships with my fellow volunteers. I know I’ll never forget my experiences in this circle, and I hope to keep in touch with the friends I’ve made.

8 thoughts on “Sam Allen: Volunteer Circle

  1. sounds interesting to play with kids! I think the hardest thing in a new group is to remember group members’ names. Any advice ?

    • It was a lot of fun 🙂
      Names are hard, but I make it a rule to remember the people sitting next to me, and the people who are leading the activities. We always do introductions at the beginning of our meetings, which helps a lot.

    • It was a lot of fun! Remembering names was hard, but I made it a rule to learn who was sitting next to me, and who was leading the activities. It helped that we did introductions before each meeting.

    • It was a lot of fun!
      Names are hard, but I make it a rule to remember the people sitting next to me, and the people who are leading the activities. We always do introductions at the beginning of our meetings, which helps a lot.

  2. How did you get the nickname haribo? Is it related to the candy? Have you had a lot of experience working with kids before this?

    • It was a mix of the gummi bears and my vague resemblance to Harry Potter.

      I actually don’t have much experience, this is my first time volunteering. I just get on well with kids, I guess.

  3. There must have been a lot of names to remember. How’d you end up with that nickname? Did you see the kids do anything that you knew wouldn’t fly in an American classroom? And what the hell they’re being taught how to make okonomiyaki in elementary school? Why wasn’t I taught how to cook in elementary school?

    • There were, and I still don’t remember them all. This was a Saturday School, so we didn’t get the same respect as regular teachers would. Kids were shouting stuff out and running around during our explanations, but it was a small group of about four boys who caused the trouble.

      Cooking lessons are awesome, they should be manditory.