Friday, March 28, 2014

J-VIPA chosen for Pacific West region's Outstanding Volunteer Service Award as it hosts visitors from Mount Rainier

J-VIPA members and their families reunite with their
Mount Rainier hosts in Tokyo, Japan
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of nominating the Japan Volunteers-in-Parks Association (J-VIPA) to receive a George Hartzog Award for Outstanding Volunteer Service, in recognition of twenty years of partnership with Mount Rainier National Park. I have just learned that J-VIPA was selected as this year's winner for the Pacific West region of the National Park Service in the "group" category, and will be our nominee for the national award! The national award winner will be announced in May.

The news comes, coincidentally, just as I have returned from my own first visit to Japan, where I spent a week with members of J-VIPA, along with my 13-year-old son and twelve others who have served as host families to J-VIPA students here at Mount Rainier over the years. (We called it the "Dream Tour" because we've been dreaming of doing this ever since our partnership started two decades ago!) We toured sights in and around Tokyo and Mt. Fuji, including a wide variety of historical, cultural, and natural wonders that recently led to the designation of Mt. Fuji as a World Heritage Site. We stayed with two different host families, one in Tokyo, the other in Fujikawaguchiko, and visited the Fujisan Club (a local environmental advocacy group) and Oarachi Elementary School, with which Mount Rainier National Park has had an educational exchange for the past several years. We were welcomed with open arms every place we went.

Our group of 14 included current park employees like myself, and people who hosted students in the past and have since retired or moved on to work at other national parks. A highlight of our trip was a reunion attended by almost fifty of the 386 people who've served at Mount Rainier over the past twenty years.

While this was not technically a work trip (no government money was involved and we all traveled on personal leave time), it was clear that we represented Mount Rainier and the National Park Service. A procession of community and education leaders connected with our group to welcome us to Japan, and we exchanged gifts that represented our respective mountains. (Mount Rainier's partnership with Mt. Fuji began way back in 1935 with the exchange of rocks from the summit of our two volcanoes. Rainier's rock is displayed prominently in the Mt. Fuji Visitor Center, while the rock from Mt. Fuji can be seen in the lobby of our Park Headquarters.) I gave a short presentation on Mount Rainier at Oarachi Elementary School, and we were treated to presentations on Mount Fuji by some of the students. As a school project, the students will be sending us some of their favorite photos of Fuji, and we will reply with photos from Mount Rainier.

Volunteers work on a cleanup project at the Fujisan Club
headquarters in Fujikawaguchiko, Yamanashi, Japan.
Our agenda had included two afternoons of volunteer work, but plans got rearranged at the last minute due to heavy spring snow that made the planned work location (Fifth Station) inaccessible -- something that I, as a volunteer coordinator myself, could readily identify with! Instead, we put in an hour of work cleaning up debris and shoveling snow at a building that had collapsed under the weight of the snow, and spent some time writing up feedback for park managers about facilities and interpretive materials and how they could be improved for international visitors like ourselves.

I also had an opportunity to chat for about an hour with Mio Konishi, an "Active Ranger" (as opposed to one who does paperwork!) at Saiko Lake National Park. They have a very small and underfunded staff, and she's keenly interested in starting a volunteer program and wanted my advice. We talked about the importance of finding good projects with good crew leaders, ways of connecting with appropriate volunteers and volunteer groups, and contingency plans in case of emergencies. Our group, of course, also wanted to come back and volunteer for her!

She also asked me if I could look over a new website they've put together to try to consolidate good information about Mt. Fuji, especially for potential climbers -- much like our own official website. They want the site to be clear, comprehensive, and easy to use by people all over the world. I accepted the assignment and told her that I was therefore her first volunteer! You can help too -- if you'd like to contribute your own feedback, just visit the site at and e-mail your comments to me at and I'll pass them along.

One of the most impressive parts of our visit was seeing first-hand the profound effect that participating in the J-VIPA program has had on its participants -- and their families. We met with students who were here for the first time last summer, and others who participated in the first program 21 years ago, and some who came back multiple times over the years. The common thread we heard again and again was how much the experience changed their lives in positive ways. They developed a new awareness of the natural world, the value of community service, an openness to international partnerships, and of course strong and life-long friendships. Many of the older students now have families of their own, and it's clear that those values are being passed on to the next generation. That's also happening through the Sister Mountain education project at Oarachi, where almost every student made a point of telling us how much they want to come visit Mount Rainier someday.

This program has planted some very good seeds, and their roots are going deep and growing strong. As one of our group members remarked at the reunion, we've formed a chain that will not break, and just keeps getting longer.

The penultimate evening of our trip, I sat next to program founder Hiro Yamaguchi and reflected on the program as we watched the sun set on Mt. Fuji. J-VIPA has concluded their volunteer partnership with Mount Rainier for now, but the friendships remain. The program is looking for other places to plant seeds -- maybe at another national park, or in another country besides the United States. They're also increasingly active in volunteer service at home in Japan. The program will continue to grow and blossom, and the world is a better place because of it.

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