Font size
  • S
  • M
  • L

KIDS EARTH FUND - Children's Art can Change the World.  The Huge Volunteer Activities of Small Children -

KEF Founder Harumi Torii standing in front of an artwork entitled "Rainbow Tree" that was painted by Japanese children.

KEF Founder Harumi Torii standing
in frontof an artwork entitled "Rainbow Tree"
that was painted by Japanese children.

This month's Close Up introduces the KIDS EARTH FUND (KEF), a specified non-profit organization (NPO). KEF was established in 1988, it supporting activities that develop environments in which children worldwide are able to lead happier lives. A distinctive feature of KEF is the organization's support of children's creativity; it converting into funding that supports children worldwide, the proceeds received from businesses that employ children's art into their product designs. Moreover, KEF continues to hold children's art exhibitions throughout the world, the works featured therein conveying both environmental and social messages. As the organization moves to celebrate its 25th anniversary, we spoke to KEF Founder Harumi Torii about the concepts underpinning the "Kids Helping Kids" fund activities. We also discussed the significance of support activities conducted via the vehicle of art.

Q.Please tell us what led to the establishment of KEF?

The KIDS EARTH FUND logo. © Kids Earth Fund

The KIDS EARTH FUND logo.
© Kids Earth Fund

A.KEF was born from the activities of a small preschool that I established for my son. At the preschool, we incorporated a wide range of volunteer activities into the curriculum. This was done because we wanted to have the children also cast their own eyes towards wider society, and consider what they personally could contribute. Thus, the children conducted activities such as picking up neighborhood trash, singing at retirement homes, and presenting cancer patients with art that the children had created themselves. At that time, there was somebody who was drawn to the children's activities, and in due course matters evolved into an NPO called "KIDS EARTH FUND" (KEF), which conducts activities under the banner of "Kids Helping Kids". KEF was established in 1988, and we will be celebrating our 25th anniversary this year.

Q.So the concept of "Kids Helping Kids" is something distinctive?

A.Yes, a significant facet of KEF is that children feature heavily in our activities. By converting into funding royalties received by having art created by children used in the design of picture books, cards, product packaging and corporate calendars, etc., we can use such funds to support children worldwide. In addition to necessities such as clothing and medical supplies, etc., through donations of art supplies and the construction of facilities for children, we are able to support other children by leveraging the efforts of those who actually create the art. Such experiences during childhood develop within children a significant sense of confidence, and they plant within them the seeds of consciousness about being a global citizen. While appreciating that they are playing a vital social role from a very young age; isn't there the possibility that changes will be created in the futures of such children?

Q.What gave you the particular idea of using the power of children's art and incorporating it in your activities?

A.The initial catalyst was a single picture painted by my son on the theme of "Happy Birthday Earth." When I saw his representation of the sun and moon giving to the earth the gifts of water and vegetation, I felt that a child's imagination and gentleness might be harnessed to help social change. Furthermore, I established an NPO based on the vision that, by recasting the world through children's artwork, we could harness such power to improve society.

"Happy Birthday Earth," the picture that acted as the catalyst that launched KEF. © Kids Earth Fund
The first sponsor was established and the picture was used to decorate Laforet HARAJUKU. © Kids Earth Fund

"Happy Birthday Earth," the picture that acted as the catalyst that launched KEF.
The first sponsor was established and the picture was used to decorate Laforet HARAJUKU.
© Kids Earth Fund

"A Kind Gun" (Painted by an Italian child) © Kids Earth Fund

"A Kind Gun"
(Painted by an Italian child)
© Kids Earth Fund

I believe children can create such artwork because of their innocence and continued freedom from stereotypical hang-ups. For example, there is the artwork of an Italian child hung in this room. In the picture, a gun is firing flowers rather than bullets. "While people die from bullets from gun barrels, they wouldn't if guns fired flowers." So what do you think of the message incorporated into that child's artwork, isn't it amazing?

Q.And around the world you conduct art workshops with children?

A.I want to convey to children the importance of expression. If you consider the human condition, there are numerous difficulties encountered within it. However, if an individual possesses the gift of expression in all circumstances, events will definitely change. Furthermore, I feel that the most effective tool for children is the creation of artwork. Creating pictures does not require any special skills, any child can do it, and there is the benefit of being able to express one's inner feelings. Up until now in the workshops actually conducted worldwide, we've witnessed changes in children due to their creating of art. For example, at workshops conducted at pediatric wards here in Japan, children who initially drawn their pictures in silence sooner or later voice themselves through comments such as "I have a rare and painful condition that affects just one in every 100,000 people" or "I've been admitted to hospital but I'd really like to return home." A complete difference can be made by talking, by creating art, and by having the opportunity to express oneself. It might even be the case that children considering suicide do not follow through due to such experiences.

A workshop where child inpatients at a Japanese hospital decorated fans whose other side was decorated by children at an orphanage in the Philippines. Kids Earth Fund
The children were very moved to receive fans that had pictures drawn by children from a country they had never visited. © Kids Earth Fund

A workshop where child inpatients at a Japanese hospital decorated fans
whose other side was decorated by children at an orphanage in the Philippines.
The children were very moved to receive fans that had pictures
drawn by children from a country they had never visited.
© Kids Earth Fund

Q.Please tell us about the Kids Earth Home facilities established worldwide?

A.Through expressional activities such as artwork creation, etc., "Kids Earth Home" facilities assist children burdened with deep psychological scars due to war, poverty, and domestic violence, etc., to regain a richness of spirit. Our first Kids Earth Home was a home for war orphans in Croatia. It was established in 1996. To date, we've built some twelve facilities worldwide. Because we are self-supporting in our activities, when building a Kids Earth Home overseas, we aim to have local people managing things for themselves within three-to-five years. We also have a policy of telling children about those who sponsor their facilities. If we convey that "it is due to the money earned by the everyday hard work of Company X employees that we can provide you with somewhere to study," the children tend to feel a deep sense of gratitude for the kindness they receive.

Ms.Torii with children at the 1st Kids Earth Home in Croatia. © Kids Earth Fund

Ms.Torii with children
at the 1st Kids Earth Home in Croatia.
© Kids Earth Fund

Children welcoming Ms. Torii to the Kids Earth Home in Vietnam. © Kids Earth Fund

Children welcoming Ms. Torii
to the Kids Earth Home in Vietnam.
© Kids Earth Fund

Q.What changes do you see in children who feel a sense of gratitude?

A.When the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, we witnessed many children crying "because Japan, which had offered them so much support, had been hit so hard." Children are very gentle, and they tend to feel for others in much the same way as they feel for themselves. Thus, we had children who sent pictures and even those who raised donations by shining shoes on the street. It might be the case that, when things are tough, children are more susceptible to feeling such events due to their naivety. As such children grow and develop some freedom to do so; within them an inclination to help others is born. When interviewed at Kids Earth Home facilities in Vietnam and Cambodia about future jobs, due to a desire to be of benefit to others, many children mentioned jobs such as doctors, nurses, and NPO employees. In terms of feeling truly alive, for both children and adults, I suppose it is a case of feeling to what extent a person can be of benefit to others.

Energetic children in Cambodia raising their hands © Kids Earth Fund

Energetic children
in Cambodia raising their hands
© Kids Earth Fund

Vietnamese children enthralled in their painting © Kids Earth Fund

Vietnamese children enthralled
in their painting
© Kids Earth Fund

Q.In addition to overseas, Kids Earth Home facilities have also been established in Japan.

A.Domestically, we have facilities in Tokyo and Tohoku. Although initially we felt that a facility in Tokyo was unnecessary, irrespective of being poor or rich, people are all the same in that they live with a wide variety of problems. In 2004, we decided to develop a facility in Tokyo as well for children burdened with concerns regarding bullying and family-collapse, and also as somewhere to engage in creative activities. In September of 2011, we opened our 12th facility in Miyagi Prefecture. Artwork created by children impacted by the Great East Japan Earthquake has been employed in products such as notebooks and cube tissue boxes as part of the "ASKUL Kodomo Art Project" range of ASKUL Corporation. The royalties from this project have been passed to KEF. I feel the children involved in this artwork were greatly encouraged when they knew their art was to be sold nationwide, and that the proceeds thereof give others worldwide an opportunity to paint.

Tohoku children impacted by the disaster painting at the biggest temporary housing project in Watari Town, Miyagi Prefecture. © Kids Earth Fund

Tohoku children impacted by the disaster
painting at the biggest temporary housing
project in Watari Town, Miyagi Prefecture.
© Kids Earth Fund

ASKUL Kodomo Art Project products featuring designs created by children impacted by the Great East Japan Earthquake. © Kids Earth Fund

ASKUL Kodomo Art Project products
featuring designs created by children
impacted by the Great East Japan Earthquake.
© Kids Earth Fund

Q.Please tell us about the KEF 25th anniversary projects?

In New Jersey, USA, the second stop for the 25th anniversary project.  In thinking of the devastated Tohoku Region, the children painted a picture of seeds as the giver of new life. © Kids Earth Fund

In New Jersey, USA, the second stop
for the 25th anniversary project.
In thinking of the devastated Tohoku Region,
the children painted a picture of seeds
as the giver of new life.
© Kids Earth Fund

A.As with "Happy Birthday Earth," the picture-catalyst for the commencement of KEF activities, using the theme of "A Present to the Earth," we are conducting a project whereby children worldwide will complete a single picture. A giant canvas measuring six meters by three meters is currently traveling the world. A global picture will be painted in Vancouver, New Jersey, Hong Kong, Croatia, Paris, London, Milan, Los Angeles, Mexico, Vietnam and Cambodia, before finally returning to the Kids Earth Home in Tohoku. After being put on display at the "25th Anniversary Fund Raising Party 2013" to be held at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo on November 1st, it is planned to present the picture to the town office of Watari in Miyagi Prefecture. To date, the picture has been painted at workshops in three locations, with the national characteristics and culture of each country being incorporated into it. It is truly becoming an amazing work of art.

Q.Do you give instructions at workshops so pictures of a certain style are created?

A Kids Earth Car painted by children. It is used to conduct mobile workshops when visiting pediatric wards and foster homes throughout Japan.

A Kids Earth Car painted by children.
It is used to conduct mobile workshops
when visiting pediatric wards
and foster homes throughout Japan.

A.No, we give no instructions at all. The children are the key participants, and we ask that they express what is bubbling up inside them. All I do is provide the children with the opportunity to create art. By being able to freely create art, it is my hope that children will develop into highly imaginative adults. I view imagination and expression as powers that can change the world. It is very unfortunate that on becoming adults, we lose much of our childhood creativity. Adults should not seek to deter the abilities of children.

Q.Through your workshops, have you noticed any differences between children overseas and those in Japan?

Tohoku Children from the Kids Earth Home established in Watari Town, Miyagi Prefecture. © Kids Earth Fund

Tohoku Children from
the Kids Earth Home established
in Watari Town, Miyagi Prefecture.
© Kids Earth Fund

A.Among Japanese children, there is a tendency to look sideways and try to emulate their colleagues. They feel comfortable in being the same as other children, and they don't like to be different from others. Then again, even among Japanese children there are differences resulting from environmental factors. If they are pushed then and there, things are totally different. Furthermore, among Japanese people, compared to other countries, there is a sense that their consciousness of Japan in the world is slightly lacking. As such, I always make a point of telling children that even incidents and wars occurring on the other side of the planet have some relevance to them.

Q.Is there some way that we can contribute to KEF activities?

A.If your household has children from two to fifteen years old, ask them to "paint a picture that will contribute to society," and then send it to us. The picture might be selected and become artwork that supports other children. Furthermore, if people can visit our offices, we have lots of tasks available including numbering pictures, preparing workshops, and addressing letters, etc. Our Ebisu offices have a very international flavor with interns from around the world. There are also foreign residents of Japan among our volunteers, etc.

Q.And if you would like to give a message to our readers...

Ms. Torii:  "Based on one's own feelings, it's possible for anybody to volunteer."

Ms. Torii: "Based on one's own
feelings, it's possible
for anybody to volunteer."

A.Japanese people are very humble. Many say "I am not able to do anything," however, even our own volunteer activities commenced with preschool pupils. They simply picked up trash on the way to preschool. Then again, even such simple tasks are a great volunteer activity. If you think like that, it might be assumed that everybody can do something. All people exist in that they live while being supported by others in society. Just starting with the smallest act is fine; however, I want people to do something for others. If you do, you will also feel better about yourself. Of course, I would be very happy if your readers participated in KEF activities. If there are children on summer vacation, they are more than welcome to visit us and paint a picture. We are also very receptive to pictures that are sent to us.