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Japan Launches “Smile” Home Cleaning And Safety Project For Elderly In Tokyo

Singapore Singer Lends A Hand In HFH Singapore’s Operation Homeworks

TOKYO/SINGAPORE, 13th February 2008: Volunteers from Habitat for Humanity Japan are doing their bit to improve the “smiles” of the country’s fast growing elderly population, especially those living alone.

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Labor of love: The three Campus Chapter volunteers with the elderly man they helped in HFH Japan’s pilot home improvement and safety project in Tokyo.

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In need: A heart problem prevented the elderly woman living on her own to maintain her household properly.

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Handy men: Two HFH Japan volunteers helping an elderly woman living alone in Tokyo to move some furniture in HFH Japan’s second pilot.

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Ode to volunteerism: Local singer A-Do cleaning up a home during a recent Operation Homeworks project in Singapore.

HFH Japan is piloting a project, tentatively called Smile Operation (smile is similar in sound to “sumai”, the Japanese word for house). In the capital Tokyo, three undergraduates from one of HFH Japan’s Campus Chapters kick-started a pilot home renovation and cleaning project. This is similar to Habitat programs in the modern Asian cities of Singapore and Hong Kong. HFH Japan is partnering with a local governmental office, the Nakano Area Comprehensive Support Center. The authorities will recommend the elderly people who need assistance, usually those who are on welfare and living alone. The first person to receive help in HFH Japan’s pilot project was a 70-year-old former temple carpenter who lives alone in the Nakano area in Tokyo. The students cleaned up his home as well as handled plumbing works. Although it was their first time working on such a project, the volunteers were encouraged by the result. Yasuka Arai said: “When I entered his apartment, I strongly realized that it could be difficult for the solitary elderly people to maintain their homes and live comfortably.”

“When we finished cleaning up, his eyes were full of tears as he was worried that he wouldn’t be able to keep his room clean. I believe that this project is needed as HFH Japan’s continual project.”

Working together with Arai was another volunteer Ayuko Kurata. She considered the scheme an important way to engage Campus Chapters volunteers on a regular basis. “We need to be responsible and shouldn’t do something with a half-hearted attitude in any kind of volunteering, especially this project.”

The experience was novel for the third volunteer, Kazuya Tominaga. “I realized that people have some problems and need help even though they have houses or places to live.” He hoped that the project can be expanded beyond Tokyo.

In a second pilot, two HFH Japan volunteers helped a 79-year-old woman who has a heart problem to clean up her Tokyo home. Sho Nittono was fired up after seeing volunteers on similar projects on TV. “I thought to myself ‘Yes! I also can do it!’.” He added that the elderly woman was a “very cheerful and happy person and I enjoyed her company. I’d love to join this (project) again.”

First-time Habitat volunteer Yu Kawahara said: “This is also a good opportunity for young people - not only by helping the elderly to carry and move furniture or cleaning, but you get to communicate and build relationships with the elderly. You have the chance to meet people from different generations and background. I felt good and refreshed even though I perspired all over!”

Smile Operation also has an important safety aspect. According to HFH Japan’s acting national director Daniel Tay, elderly people are often the most affected when earthquakes and earth tremors, both relatively common, strike in Japan. First, because they often live in old houses which could hardly withstand an earthquake and secondly, they are either unable or unwilling to evacuate in such a disaster, resulting in serious injuries. “What we are doing are really simple things, like re-arranging electric wires, or some sort of small improvement that could potentially save life,” said Tay.

Meanwhile, Operation Homeworks, a similar Habitat program in Singapore, continues to make steady progress in helping to improve the home safety and cleanliness of the elderly and disabled people living on their own. In January 2008, local singer A-Do, who sang Habitat’s first Mandarin song, “Xin Jia” (New Home), joined about 20 volunteers to spruce up four homes of elderly folks who live alone.

Since it was started in 2006, HFH Singapore’s Operation Homeworks has helped more than 100 people and involved more than 700 volunteers in the effort.