Countown to Vegas – Story #1 – Japan

May 18, 2009

I’m pre-releasing some of the stories that will be shared visually at the Global Diamond Forum in Las Vegas next week. We wrote these stories when we visited six countries last year as part of a special One by One Fund for Children that our leadership established as a way to scale up or create new One by One programs. This is the full, unfiltered, journalistic version that zooms in close, but carries the same themes as the hundreds of other One by One programs around the world.
Entering the forest

On a cool autumn day, light filters in through the trees. It is very silent.

But soon, there are voices and the slow shuffle of feet rustling through leaves and popping on fallen acorns. The first pair emerges into the clearing. A tall adult, and a slightly shorter child, linking arms, the child feeling his way with a red and white striped cane.

As they draw closer to the clearing, the adult is grinning. She has already picked up on the magic of the forest. The child still carries a look of concentration. Taking it all in. Allowing the extreme input of his four senses to slowly soak in.

Another couple appears, then another. Seven children, ages ten through fourteen, and seven guides, enter the clearing and find their places on log benches around the now quiet bonfire pit. Four are completely blind and three have only a faint sense of light in their vision. They hear the others’ voices and call out to the people they know. The smiles start to break and a feeling of excitement finally washes over the group.

Ms. Risako Noguchi, the guide from the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust, stands and, in Japanese, welcomes the group to Afan Forest. She asks them to make friends with the creatures of the forest – the trees, the insects and the animals. Then a child therapist gives a preview of their experiences and begins formal introductions. They go around the circle, giving their real name, and then creating nicknames they will use during their two-day experience. The names start simple, like “Acorn,” but they quickly become absurd like “Cutie” and even “2008.” But self-expression and creativity is what this experience is all about.

Afan Forest is 50 acres of woodlands located in the mountainous region of Nagano, in the north central part of Japan. From Tokyo, it takes two hours by high-speed train, then another hour by car to reach the remote location. The forest was brought back to life in 2002 after suffering from pollution, river damming and general neglect. Today you can wander through its trails, exploring sloping hills, vegetable gardens, ponds, and many types of wildlife.

The Afan experience

After some introductory exercises and homemade boxed lunches made by women in the nearby town, the children begin their true exploration of the forest. A stream winds its way through the trees, and the children wade in with their tall rubber boots, feeling the current of the frigid water with their feet and canes. They climb down a steep bank to enter the water and climb back up again to get out. Many helping hands reach out.

Further up the stream, they cross over and begin to climb a steep hill of slippery rocks and stones through overhanging branches of the maple trees. It seems impassable at first, even to those with full sight and in athletic form. Yet they make their way slowly, slowly up the hill, relying on their senses and the guide on their arm. Sometimes the guide supports them. Sometimes they support the guide.

Soon, all seven pairs are out of sight, winding through the forest path. You can hear their screams and giggles feathering through the thicket of pine branches and foliage. They emerge in yet another path upstream and cross over once again. Here they wait for the group to gather under a huge tree and share some sweet candies while they chatter with each other about what they have experienced so far.

Ryuichi Hattori, a 12-year old boy with bright red shirt and slight stature, carries a wide smile. He rocks back and forth and begins to hum a tune. Soon his guide joins in, harmonizing with a sing-song rhythm.

Ryuichi is a gifted pianist, who began to play at the age of four. He has been to Afan Forest before, and composed a song after his experience. Throughout his visit, he and Mr. Kunitaro Ikeda spontaneously begin singing or tapping out tunes on tree trunks, vines and rocks. Mr. Ikeda volunteers his time as a guide at Afan Forest, but also works with children as a musical therapist. His songs frequently light up the forest, and the faces of the children.

Amway sponsors this group of visitors through its One by One Campaign for Children. Not only do blind children attend outdoor therapy at Afan Forest. There are programs for abused and neglected children, who come away from this experience with a different outlook – a sense of peace and new beginnings. Amway has supported 27 Afan Forest therapy sessions since 2004.

“Children have their minds open through the experience in Afan Forest,” says Mr. Shuji Mizumoto, Vice President in Amway’s Japan offices. “And every time we share this experience with them, our minds are opened a little too.”

Funds for the program are raised through the sale of Amway’s Gourmet Products. Ten Yen are donated for the sale of each product. Amway then matches the donations and designates them to the One by One Fund. Through this program, Amway and its Distributors have supported programs like Afan Forest, as well as Special Olympics, school building in Cambodia, and awards for children with special needs.

The company recently launched the Orange Project to raise awareness and prevent abuse and neglect of children in Japan, where reported cases have doubled since 1990. Amway will be scaling up its support to the Orange Project and other therapy programs for abused and neglected children over the next few years. This initiative is part of a broader push to grow Amway’s One by One Campaign projects around the world in honor of the company’s 50th anniversary in 2009.

Losing gravity

While the last hikers trickle back, a forest guide begins to chop two narrow logs and tie ropes around them. He tosses the other end of the rope over a high, thick tree branch. After making a few more specialized knots, he hops on an impromptu swing to test it out. The children wait and listen. It works.

The first child on the swing, 13 year-old Nakaba Ito, hops right back off after his first push. He tries to get a feel for just how the swing works and how to set his balance. He finally sets himself and soars over the steep hill, to cheers from the group and an enormous grin.

Ryuichi is next, and seems very nervous. He holds on tight and folds himself in, anticipating a fall. They start him out slow while his friends shout encouragement. His guide, Mr. Ikeda, stands next to him, laughing and encouraging. Soon Ryuichi laughs too and asks to swing higher. Now he feels trust, now he can enjoy.

Fourteen year-old Kanna is next. She has no problems getting started, and asks to go higher and higher. When she finishes, she talks about “flying, feeling free with no more gravity.” On her cane is a group of charms. After searching through the bunch with her delicate fingers, she finds one of E.T., the extra-terrestrial from the 1980s movie. She says, “Swinging makes me feel like E.T., flying above the trees and the people on his bike.”

To keep the trees growing, the ponds clean and the trails maintained, it takes an army of volunteers. Many of these volunteers come from the ranks of Amway’s Distributors. Across the forest from the hikers, a team of 30 Distributors spread a mountain of bark chips to freshen the trails.

“We love spending time here,” says Mr. Kunihisa Yoshihara, a Diamond-level Distributor from the Nagano area, who has been in Afan Forest seven times now. “Just being here is a wonderful feeling not only for the children, but for us adults to experience. The forest expands every year, and there is a sense of pride that we can contribute to its growth.”

The next morning, they climb deep into the forest, clearing brush that was beginning to choke and threaten the tall, majestic trees. There is no single Amway business line represented. It is many people coming together for a common good. They come together under the Amway banner, but with different reasons for wanting to help.

“These activities are important for Amway’s Distributors. But they are very different from the commercial side – they have their own meaning,” says Mr. Yoshihara. “We can see that we are really helping. At the same time, we get to sweat, breathe the air and refresh ourselves from our busy, daily activities. I feel like I become a nicer, kinder person when I leave this place.”

As the sun dips down and the woods darken, the group gathers around the bonfire pit again. They cook wild mushrooms from the forest, make soup and grill oyaki, which are traditional Japanese pastries. The kids are involved in the food preparation and help to serve each other. The noise level rises as friendships are solidified and jokes are made.

The last activity of the night is a hike through the woods. This time, the adult guides turn off their flashlights and the children become the guides. They can “see” better in the nighttime, with their heightened senses. Their newfound awareness of the trails and sense of the trees and paths makes them leaders. They end their day feeling empowered, and full of the freshness of the forest.

Whistles in the Woods

The next day, while Amway’s Distributors are clearing mountain brush and chattering among themselves, faint music can be heard wafting over the Afan hills. The campers started their morning with a mountain hike, and are now camped in a wooded valley sitting on a large fallen tree.

Mr. Ideda, the music teacher, has brought homemade whistles – one for every student. He and Ryuichi, the young musical prodigy, begin a simple tempo. Hoo-hoo-hoo … hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo. The others join in at different intervals, creating music like a native drum circle, only in pitches that seem to come directly from the wooden trees themselves. It is a lively cacophony that gives the children expression, and gives the forest a sense of mystery and joy.

On their way down to the meeting place, the group stops by the flowing stream. They pick long, narrow bamboo leaves and the forest guides teach them a sort of leafy origami. They make two small tears on each end, then fold in the flaps to make a square, green boat.

The guides direct them to the stream and launch the boats. Then they describe the boat’s journey as it bobs around stones and overhanging branches, then down a cascading waterfall. Amazingly, their faces follow each boat and they seem to see it making its progress down the creek and over the falls. They finally send the last boat and make their way back to the gathering place for another boxed lunch, made by the loving hands of local grandmothers.

When they arrive, they are joined by a special guest. C.W. Nicol is the founder of Afan Forest and well-known to the campers in attendance. He is also an ambassador of the Amway One by One Campaign for Children. He greets each child, and they see his smile in his speech. He walks with a cane, which has the carved image of a tree frog, which each child feels and discusses with him.

Mr. Nicol is a grandfather of sorts, both to the campers and to the woods themselves. He is widely known in Japan as an environmentalist and author. Born in Wales, the 68 year-old Mr. Nicol has spent most of his adult life abroad. He served on some of the first Arctic expeditions, and later worked as a national park game warden in Ethiopia. After that, he worked for the government in Canada.

He moved to Japan in the late 1970s to learn martial arts, and quickly fell in love with the country and its people. He spent two years following Japanese whaling fleets, and later published a novel about whaling in the mid-1900s. Ultimately, Mr. Nicol’s settled into his career as an independent author. He has published many books, essays and articles in English, Japanese and Inuit.

Through his experiences in natural settings around the world, Mr. Nicol has developed a deep connection with the earth, and a passion for protecting its natural gifts. He has become a leading environmental advocate in Japan, and began purchasing property in the Afan Forest as a way to protect the land. Soon he began to invite disadvantaged children to experience its mysteries and pleasures.

“We have 22 endangered species here, as well as 100 different kinds of orchids, 22 kinds of trees, bears and dragonflies.” says Mr. Nicol. “The children meet in circumstances where human touch is not artificial. Helping them across streams, climbing trees, always talking, laughing and changing directions.”

As the children begin to eat and talk, Mr. Nicol sits back quietly to watch. He is known as a loud advocate for children’s rights and environmental protection, not for being quiet – in personality or beliefs. Yet he too seems to gain a sort of therapy from the voices of the children, wrapped in the silence of the woods.

“Many of these children have never been in a wild wood,” he says. “There’s a freedom here. Nothing is artificial. Amway is not only supporting us financially, but spiritually and physically.”

Saying goodbye

The group gathers near the entrance of Afan Forest in the afternoon for the closing ceremonies. They gather in a circle. Each child and adult reflects on what they took away from their experience and their favorite activities. Tree swinging. Wandering. Leaf boats. Sitting on a vine. Feeling the mole holes. Collecting acorns. Praying. Climbing a tree. Wading in the stream.

“For two days, the children come to Afan Forest to shift in their perspective, says Mr. Mizumoto. “They walk away ‘seeing’ better. They understand better what is important. We experience this even more with the abused and neglected children who visit Afan. And we certainly experience it ourselves when we volunteer for the program.”

According to Mr. Nicol and the therapists, after the Afan experience, you can notice a difference in the way the children laugh and shout. “They don’t have a tension in their voice,” says Mr. Nicol. “They are coming and caring, and take back pictures in their hearts.”

Kanna, Ryuichi, Nakaba and the others meet up with their parents with hugs and introductions and stories. They may not remember Amway or the volunteers who spent their time guiding children or maintaining the forest. But they have an experience that they will never forget.

“People will remember their own versions of Afan,” says Mr. Nicol. “But our goal is simple. We hope to open windows to hearts that have been shut close.”

Ryuchi on the swing

An Amway distributor works in the forest

C.W. Nicol with the children

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