NY de Volunteer Brings Japanese Culture to New York Communities

The green tea is bitter, wearing a kimono can be cumbersome, and Japanese characters are difficult to write. But during a two-month period, a group of children overcomes these initial complaints and gain some insight into and appreciation for Japanese culture. Through the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, inner-city youth ­have the opportunity to learn about the time-honored traditions of Japan in a program implemented by NY de Volunteer, a non-profit organization that promotes intercultural exchange through volunteerism.

The program, which has been in place for four years, was developed by Noriko Hino, NY de Volunteer’s founder and executive director. Hino, a native of Japan, had been working as a graphic designer in New York City when her company went out of business. After much soul-searching, she decided that with her next career she would give back to New York City, a place rich in cultural diversity. So in 2002 she started NY de Volunteer to harness the power of volunteerism to enrich the community.

NY de Volunteer's tea ceremony. Photo courtesy of Noriko Hino

The educational curriculum is the non-profit’s most notable means of such enrichment. According to Hino, NY de Volunteer’s after-school program is the most expensive within the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, but it’s among the most popular. The department has thirty-six centers throughout the five boroughs, and last year members of NY de Volunteer traveled around Brooklyn to conduct their classes.

Once a week for two months, Hino and her volunteers introduce fifty children aged six to thirteen years old to various aspects of Japanese culture. Many of these children have no prior knowledge of Japan, but the tea ceremony, flower arranging, and calligraphy intrigue them. The children also learn martial arts, a little bit of the Japanese language, and even how to make sushi.

Hino created a course that is part demonstration and part hands-on participation. “They have to have some reason to get interested,” says Hino, citing that the children would be bored if they simply listened to lectures about Japanese culture. Instead the children learn how to wear kimono, go through the formal steps of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, and write their names in Japanese characters with a thick calligraphy brush.

NY de Volunteer's calligraphy class. Photo courtesy of Noriko Hino

The after-school program has led to collaborations with other community organizations, such as Ikebana International, a flower-arranging society dedicated to promoting “friendship through flowers.” These collaborations create what Hino calls a “happy triangle” between those who participate, the volunteers who instruct them, and donors who contribute to society as corporate citizens.

NY de Volunteer's ikebana activity. Photo courtesy of Noriko Hino

The programs aren’t limited to activities for children. NY de Volunteer also hosts a Japanese Spa Day to provide beauty treatments to seniors, and once a year the group sponsors the US-Japan Friendship Clean-Up, through which volunteers clean restrooms in NYC parks and recreation centers. Most recently, NY de Volunteer participated in the Floating Lantern Ceremony commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

As the only fulltime employee of NY de Volunteer, Hino works tirelessly on developing projects that benefit the community. Although NY de Volunteer is a non-profit, it is still a business that exists through the challenges of fundraising. The hard work has paid off; this summer for the second consecutive year and the third year overall, NY de Volunteer was named Volunteer of the Year by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

Noriko Hino (fourth from left) and NY de Volunteer members receiving the Volunteer of the Year Award. Photo courtesy of Noriko Hino

Being honored is satisfying for Hino, but her true satisfaction comes from the people who are involved in her program. “When I go to the activity, I feel so happy because everyone has such a big smile on their faces,” says Hino.

Hino has about twenty volunteers (mainly Japanese women) who donate their time and energy to NY de Volunteer programs, three summer interns, an intern from Japan, and a board of directors consisting of six people. Hino says that NY de Volunteer is unique because although her volunteers are Japanese, the organization isn’t isolated within the Japanese community.

Hino is looking to expand NY de Volunteer from the grassroots level into a more formal organization. Because of the accolades NY de Volunteer has garnered, people are starting to take notice. While attending a seminar for not-for-profit organizations at Columbia University, Hino made connections with influential attendees, including a lawyer for the mayor’s office who is pitching NY de Volunteer to the Board of Education. It is Hino’s goal to have her after-school program branch out beyond the Department of Parks and Recreation.

She also has future plans to grow her company even further. As NY de Volunteer approaches its 10th anniversary next year, Hino is striving to implement the concept of her non-profit beyond New York and possibly nationwide. “With our success in New York with committed and hard work . . . it is time to expand our vision much wider,” Hino says.

In a sense, her non-profit is already global. In addition to her efforts in New York, Hino supervises Tokyo de Volunteer, which organizes community-building projects in Japan. The group has visited cities in northeastern Japan to provide beauty spa days for people displaced by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Since the disaster in March, volunteers have been active in relief and recovery endeavors.

Here in New York, Hino doesn’t consider NY de volunteer a Japanese non-profit serving only the Japanese community. Rather, she looks at the organization as a way to bridge cultural gaps between all of New York’s communities. “At first we see all of our differences,” she says of the start of each after-school program, “but then we see that we’re all alike.”

If you’re interested in volunteering or making a donation to NY de Volunteer, please visit http://www.nydevolunteer.org/index.html.