Poverty. Orphans. A failing education system. Dangerous streets. So many of the world’s complicated and multifaceted challenges seem to be here to stay. Their solutions, in spite of our technological advances, sometimes seem further out of reach than they have ever been. It’s tough for even the most renowned and experienced leaders to find the courage to approach these issues head-on and the scale to which these problems have manifested themselves can be disheartening.
But try telling Shin Fujiyama, 28, that young people can’t make a lasting impact in solving these challenges and he will tell you that you’re just plain wrong.
“Our motto is ‘Students can make a difference,'” said Fujiyama.
Founder of Central American Children’s Institute (CeCI) and it’s student-driven sister organization Students Helping Honduras (SHH), Shin Fujiyama was just a college student at the University of Mary Washington when a mission trip to Honduras in 2004 inspired him and sister and co-founder Cosmo Fujiyama (then a student at the nearby College of William & Mary) to do whatever they could to make a difference and alleviate the poverty they saw.
They met residents of the village of Sietie de Abril that had lost their homes to Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Since then over 100 families had become squatters on flood-prone land.
When he returned from the trip, Shin Fujiyama formed a club of ten student members called Students Helping Honduras and they began organizing penny drives, bake sales, walkathons, and other community events to raise funds. The money they raised allowed them to return to build a school and make other improvements for the rural Honduran village. It was what happened next that changed everything.
“One day when we were putting some roofs up for some of the families, this little girl, her name was Carmen, she came up to me one day and she handed me this letter. It said ‘Shin and Cosmo, we have this dream that all of us will live in real homes,'” said Shin Fujiyama in an interview with CNN. “We were just college students. But we knew somebody believe in us so we wanted to do something for Carmen and all her friends.”
After much more fundraising and help from chapters in other Virginia universities, the Mary Washington students were finally able to search for a plot of land that the villagers could own without the worry of floods. After visiting many plots of land, they settled on one the villagers could finally call home. They called it Villa Soleada—the Sunshine Village.
Affectionately referred to as “Villa,” the project is home to 43 families and is fully sustainable. A soccer field and an education center with computers serve as community focal points.
Since the organization’s modest beginnings back in 2007 it has gained considerable momentum. There are now twenty chapters of SHH in DC, Maryland and Virginia alone and hundreds of student members fly to volunteer in Honduras each year. These are testaments to how widespread the movement that CeCI has created has become. However, the completion of Villa Soleada—SHH’s and CeCI’s first victory of the scale—has turned out to be just the start of something much bigger as the focus has shifted to larger goals.
In the 1,000 Schools Challenge, the organization has partnered with villages in rural Honduras to construct schools, build, and provide resources for schools in the estimated 1,000 remote villages without the resources to build and maintain adequate schools by 2020.
Additionally, CeCI runs the One Cup of Coffee campaign to fund a children’s home for 12 orphan boys. The children came to live in Villa Soleada after a fire burned the already crowded state orphanage in November of 2011. Before it burned down, Fujiyama and volunteers paid regular visits. The premise of the campaign is that by donating each month what many Americans spend on their daily cup of coffee, you can help support the children home project.
The SHH Women’s Academy provides for girls from underprivileged communities and orphanages the opportunity to study at some of the best Honduran universities. The organization provides full scholarships and group housing to qualified candidates.
Fujiyama has been recognized nationally and internationally for his big vision and his even bigger heart. He was chosen as a 2009 CNN Hero and has appeared on Larry King Live. The Honduran newspaper La Presna has written about the SHH projects in El Progresso. He’s caught the attention of many media outlets in Northern Virginia and in cyberspace and is a modern-day hero to both volunteers and residents of the village.
In spite of all of this, Fujiyama is extremely humble and down-to-earth. Some days, he admits, things are difficult in Honduras but he credits students for helping to make this all possible.
“When I wake up in the morning and things are tough in Honduras I think of all the members that have come to Honduras and the ones that are thinking of going and that’s what keeps me going.”
Although SHH came about to provide for the needs of Carmen, her neighbors and the village’s children, Fujiyama also has a hope for all of the dedicated volunteers who come to Honduras on one of the thirteen spring, summer and winter break trips each year.
“I hope that students take from this experience the idea that anyone can make this world a better place, no matter where they come from,” said Fujiyama.
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s an average student who saw a need and decided to make a difference. While one probably make a pretty compelling argument that Fujiyama is a real-life Superman, once upon a time he was just like the rest of us: wanting to help those in need and searching for a way how. In doing so, he and the many student volunteers who have joined the cause are showing that youth is no barrier to making a positive impact.
“When people say that young people like us can’t do anything, we have proven to them over and over again that we can do anything that we dream of and so can these kid s in Honduras,” said Fujiyama.