Eight years have passed since I joined Bridge for Smile (B4S) as a volunteer in 2012. In 2013, I became a staff and since then have been part of Yokohama Port For (YPF), a safe space for youths who have aged out of the foster care system.
In 2020, COVID-19 struck a blow against YPF just as it did every corner of the globe. This news hit us in February 2020 as we were wrapping up the end of the fiscal year. Events were called off and schools were temporarily closed. Many municipal facilities also decided to temporarily close their doors. YPF was no exception, as it is a project entrusted to B4S by Yokohama City. As time passed, restrictions were put in place. Eventually, the State of Emergency was issued. Society itself was forced to withdraw. I am probably not the only one who felt anxious about what was going to happen. This was a nerve-wrecking situation for someone like me who had been working in society for a long time. How nerve-wrecking must it be for the youths venturing out into the world for the first time? What can we do to support them?
It was in April 2020, the start of the new fiscal year, when B4S started to discuss what it can do. Each staff member gave his/her idea and the team decided to put in place two actions. First, B4S would gather information regarding emergency CO-VID19 support provided by local governments and support organizations, such as information on subsidies and free consultations, and share them with the youths. Second, B4S would provide food (rice) aid. The second idea stemmed from the fact that there was a donor who periodically donated large amounts of rice to B4S. In addition, B4S received bulk food donations every year in February. These donations would make it possible for B4S to send youths in need not only rice but other food products as well.
We used emails and LINE to spread the news that B4S will start providing emergency food aid as well as information regarding various support networks. Right away, many youths contacted us, asking for rice:
“I found a job in April but barely have any income as there is no work. I am just waiting at home for the company to call me.”
“I am working part-time at a restaurant while attending college. My income has dropped due to reduced working hours. It would be a hug help if you could send me rice.”
My heart ached reading these messages that conveyed how difficult life was for the youths. I wanted to support the youths whose hearts had been filled with hope at the prospect of starting a new life in college or at work, only to be shattered by this challenging situation called COVID-19. This was my biggest motivation for going into work. I also enjoyed all the interactions with the youths. Youths would send us messages such as:
“I got the rice. Thank you!” or
“This is very helpful. Thank you!”
I would reply
“Thank you for your message. We are facing difficult times, but let’s get through this pandemic together!”
As of today, we fill 10-20 boxes a week with rice, snacks, and other food products and send them to youths in need.
After a while, Bridge for Smile decided to also provide rent subsidy. This was made possible thanks to donations from many supporters. B4S alone would not be able to do this financially.
We received many cries for help such as:
“I can’t pay this month’s rent. Please help me.”
“I will be evicted if I cannot pay the rent. I really need your support.”
B4S tried its best to answer all the cries for help. B4S also identified and approached youths who were thought to be at risk. To our pleasant surprise, some of these youths turned down our offers saying:
“Please prioritize those who need the support more than I do. My pay has gone down due to reduced hours at work, but I can get by.”
These words touched our hearts and encouraged us forward.
To this date, we have provided rent support and food support (rice, snacks, etc.) to more than 120 youths. One good thing to come out of this difficult situation is that we were able to keep in touch with the youths through email and LINE. Most of the youths that received rent and food support were those that had participated in B4S programs in the past. We were able to find out about their plight and connect them to much-needed support because we had stayed connected to them in one way or another. Some other youths were able to receive our support because they had stayed connected with the foster care facilities they had “graduated” from.
When one is providing “support,” it is easier to stay connected with youths who have problems and more difficult to stay connected with youths who are “doing well.” However, with the strike of COVID, we were made more aware than ever of the necessity and importance of staying connected even when things are going well for the youths, because one never knows when a disaster may strike.
The economic damage caused by COVID will take a long time to recover. We believe it is important to continue providing rent and food aid yet. I would like to persevere despite my old age and support these youths who are the future of Japan. Last but not least, we are thankful to all the donations we have received from the public. We will deliver your warm thoughts to the youths. We hope to continue to be a “bridge” that connects the youths with the donors and to the wider society.