Last week, Fairyland hosted 100 high school students from the earthquake-and-tsunami-devastated Tohoku region of northern Japan. They’re here on full scholarship for UC Berkeley’s Y-PLAN Youth Leadership class, an intensive program that focuses on global leadership development and community service. The students are here to learn, and take back to their home regions, knowledge of how to rebuild and reconstruct their communities. We couldn’t have been happier to host them for a day of volunteering, connection and sharing hopes for the future.

After we welcomed them to Fairyland, we invited them to explore the park. Then, to thank us for our hospitality, the students worked on a very special art project: they created Japanese paper cranes attached by string to colored rectangular strips. On each piece of paper they wrote, in English, their thoughts and wishes for the children of Fairyland. On the other side of the paper, in Japanese, they wrote their hopes for themselves. (They told us that writing wishes on strips of paper is customary at a summer festival in Sendai, the central city of the Tohoku region.) The results are beautiful to see, and I’m enjoying watching the surprised expressions of park guests as they see these unexpected ornaments fluttering from our tree branches.

Here are some of the wishes they wrote for themselves:

“I want to be a person who can give people happiness.”

“I would like to become an instructor who can teach something very important in life.”

“I want to be a good role model.”

And here are some of the wishes wrote for their American friends:

“Have a dream.”

“Live for today.”

“Just the way you are.”

“Every day is very exciting!”

Next, I, and my interpreter, were on. I was asked to speak to the kids about building community, and I began by asking them how many of them had grown up with the story of the Peach Boy. All hands went up. The story, a Japanese classic, is depicted in a mural at Fairyland. I told them that our entire park honors stories from many cultures that are woven into kids’ memories.

I then asked them to look below the surface of what they’d seen at the park. Our animals? We bring them together with traumatized and at-risk kids to facilitate healing. Our summer camp? Many of our kids are on scholarships; otherwise their families couldn’t afford this special experience. Our gardens? Centers for “horticultural therapy” sessions where autistic kids explore their five senses. Our volunteers? Seniors, corporate employees, average Oakland residents—all coming together to do good and connect with others.

Our own employees? Some have recently aged out of the foster care system and are learning valuable job skills to help them succeed.

I summed up: there’s more to Fairyland than meets the eye.

After my remarks, the students asked excellent questions. What are my biggest challenges? My greatest joys? Were the gardens here before Fairyland, or did we do all the plantings?

Then, it was time for their volunteer project. Jackie and Hugo from our horticulture department divided them into groups and gave them rakes (borrowed from the city’s Keep Oakland Beautiful program) and boxes. In a little over an hour, they filled two-thirds of a huge dumpster, raking as many leaves as Jackie and Hugo, working nonstop, could have raked in more than two weeks!

Another group did a task that we call “tying keys”—attaching little pieces of ribbon to our Magic Keys so they can be secured around little wrists. The job is not exciting, but our Japanese visitors quickly developed a system that enabled them to tie 1,325 keys in record time.

Our only cultural challenge was explaining the bricks of pink popcorn that we’d given them. I suppose this truly American treat defies translation.

According to the mission statement of their youth leadership program, these students have come to America “to be inspired.” But I think I can speak for Team Fairyland when I say that getting to know these resilient, sweet and smart kids has definitely inspired us. Arigatou gozaimasu!


Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland. See our guidelines.

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