JOLA Interview Article with Jeff Jensen

Jeff was born and raised in Banff, an outdoor resort town in the Canadian Rockies. His first visit to Japan was in 1993. At the time, Banff was a popular destination for Japanese tourists. Jeff thought his chances of working as an outdoor guide for Japanese tourists would be better with Japanese language skills, so he came to Japan on a working holiday to study Japanese. However, he soon found out that learning Japanese was more difficult than what he expected, and he decided to also explore the nature of Japan. He put his skiing skills to work and found a job in Shiga Kogen, where he was able to study the language at the same time. In the off-season, he worked as a carpenter’s assistant and traveled all over Japan. He later moved to Kanto area, where he started a rafting company and a climbing gym. Jeff is also a co-founder and COO of Nomadics, an outdoor gear distributor.

Alongside his career, Jeff has an enduring passion for Mirai no Mori, an NPO that provides children in care homes with outdoor experiences that help to build essential life skills.

“Children in care homes have lost their parents or, for various reasons, have been separated from their parents.  For those children, the care homes become like their own home, and the children they live with are like family. Yet, their time in the care home is limited. These children must leave homes, by law, at the age of 18 and become fully independent, regardless of how ready they are to start life as an adult. To survive and thrive through this sudden transition into independence, children need to have the essential life skills. To live happily, people say you need communication skills, good judgment, and the ability to work cooperatively, but I think the most important thing is believing in yourself. In other words, it’s the ability to set your own path forward. The outdoors is by nature different from their ordinary life. And in that environment, with the unpredictability of the weather and the small mishaps that happen when camping, we are sharing with children a chance to learn resilience and build their belief in themselves to continue trying even when things get tough.”

Experience as a camp leader build confidence for the future

Mirai no Mori offers children in care homes the chance to be in the outdoors, where they sleep in tents and participate in daytime activities such as hiking, stream walking, and outdoor cooking. The program has evolved over the years, and has recently expanded to include one-day weekend programs with a variety of experiential activities such as forestry and rafting. There are also multicultural events, such as Easter and Halloween.

Children in high school, who are also in their last years in care homes, have the opportunity to participate in a leadership program. Through this program, they learn to solve complex problems in teams and as leaders, and these experiences become the foundations for their self-confidence. Mirai no Mori programs are designed to nurture young people into self-driven individual, rather than relying on others to direct them.

“My mother was separated from her parents soon after she was born due to abuse. She was then adopted. Unfortunately, her foster parents were also abusive, but she lived in their home until she was 18 years old. I didn’t find out about my mother’s childhood until I was an adult. She worked very hard to raise my siblings and me, but she also volunteered a lot of her time, devoting most of her efforts to activities in support of the elderlies. I think it is because of my mother that I decided to use my experience in the outdoors to give back to Japanese society.”

The reasons for the children to be admitted to the care homes varies widely, but the proportion of children who have been abused has increased in recent years. In Japan, there are currently approximately 600 care homes, where children have a safe living environment thanks to the tremendous efforts of staff and administrators. Yet, many of these children still face serious limitations due to social prejudice and inadequate support.

“I want to do what I can to support the children and the care home staff. Together, we must be the people who nurture these children,” Jeff shares as his mission.

Mirai no Mori allows children from multiple care homes to participate in the camps at the same time because it is important for the children from different facilities interact. The care homes are like families for the children. The rules at one care home may not be the same as the rules in another, and children who only know the rules of their home can develop a limited view. By meeting children from different care homes and interacting with the international camp staff, children start to realize that society has lots of different rules, ways of doing things, and ways of thinking. Care home staff also tell us that the camp is a good opportunity to share different methods and practices, so they can take back new ways of doing things.

Many of the camp staff are not Japanese, and children gain a broader world view through their interactions with camp staff. There are many different people in the world, and they all have different ideas. These experiences help to spark the realization that what we assume to be the common sense are not always shared by others.

One of the fun ways Jeff uses to illustrate these cultural differences is to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The combination of peanut butter and jelly into a sandwich is very common in North America, but the children who participate in Mirai no Mori tend to respond with surprise and say things like, “I’ve never seen it eaten that way before,” or “why mix two sweet things together?” Once, when Jeff started enjoying the sandwich at the start of the meal, the children made comments like, “what a strange way of eating!” and “dessert should be eaten after the meal.” The exact reaction that he was waiting for. He told them,

“I’m happy as long as I can eat what I think tastes good when I want to! It’s not weird. Instead, I like to say “interesting! or that’s new!” If you go to Canada and eat the way you usually do in Japan, people might be surprised on how strange it appears. These kind of rules are something that you create for yourself. As long as others are not bothered by them, you can do things differently and think differently. Each person is different from the next.

The children gradually started to try the sandwich and said, “this is surprisingly delicious!” Jeff says that watching the children grow and seeing their confidence build makes all his efforts worth a while.

Author/Tsutomu Shikama(Original article:JOLA 2020 archive