When Shin Fujiyama met Carmen Flores for the first time, the 10-year-old girl was selling oranges to help feed her three younger siblings. She and her family reside in a cardboard shack in Siete de Abril, a tiny, impoverished refugee village in Honduras.
“I still remember meeting Carmen,” said Fujiyama, 23. “She followed us around and even drew pictures for us to take home. She wore the same blue shirt everyday — a blue tank top with a Clifford on it.”
That was in December of 2006, and it was Fujiyama’s sixth visit to Honduras in two years. The University of Mary Washington college student and McLean High School graduate traveled to Honduras for the first time to work as a volunteer during his winter break in 2004.
On the return flight home from that initial 2004 trip, Fujiyama met philanthropist Henry Osburn who told him about the orphanage of Copprome. Three months later, in March of 2005, Fujiyama returned to Honduras with Osburn and worked as a translator and volunteer in Copprome. Moved by the plight of the orphanage’s impoverished children, Fujiyama returned to Copprome that summer, spending his entire three-month vacation working as a volunteer. His younger sister Cosmo Fujiyama, a student at the College of William and Mary, joined him for part of the time, and also became enamoured with the cause. He returned to college determined to find a way to help — and thus, the non-profit organization “Students Helping Honduras” was born.
DURING HIS WINTER break in 2005, Fujiyama took a small group of student volunteers to Copprome to work as volunteers. While there, he shot footage which he later used to create the film documentary “Copprome: A Hope for Honduras.” The film won “Film of the Festival” at the University of Mary Washington Film Festival, and succeeded in raising student interest in Fujiyama’s cause.
Following the success of the film, Fujiyama went to Doris Buffett — sister of billionaire Warren Buffett — for help raising money to build a new education center at Copprome. A resident of Fredericksburg, Doris Buffett is the founder of the Sunshine Lady Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to providing matching grants to student philanthropist projects. Upon meeting Fujiyama, Buffett promptly offered him a double-matching grant for Copprome.
Buoyed by her offer, Fujiyama, his sister and his fellow Students Helping Honduras members organized the group’s first ever walkathon fund-raising event. Held in Fredericksburg in April of 2006, the walkathon drew 1,200 participants and raised approximately $150,000 with the help of Buffett’s matching contribution. Construction on the new Copprome Education Center began in December 2006.
“People might think that once you raise the money, you get to work right away, but it doesn’t work like that,” said Fujiyama. “Implementing these projects takes meticulous planning, consulting, debating and research — each dollar needs to be accountable. It took us seven whole months to begin construction at Copprome.”
Despite the long wait to see construction begin, Fujiyama said that all of his hard work was rewarded when he, his family and the other Students Helping Honduras volunteers stepped off the bus last December in Honduras and saw the Copprome orphans for the first time in almost a year.
“They were so excited to see us,” said Fujiyama. “We were overwhelmed by hugs and kids jumping on our backs … after the hardest journey of our lives raising that money, seeing the kids so happy makes it worthwhile. We do everything for the kids, we give it our all.”
TODAY Shin Fujiyama, his sister Cosmo, 21, and now their 18-year-old brother Gaku — a freshman at Virginia Tech — are still hard at work. This time, the family and the other members of Students Helping Honduras are organizing the group’s second fund-raising walkathon, which will be held on April 21 at the University of Mary Washington campus.
Proceeds from this year’s walkathon will be used to provide permanent housing for Carmen Flores and the other 72 families residing in the refugee village of Siete de Abril. Once again Doris Buffett has offered a matching grant, promising one dollar for every dollar raised if Students Helping Honduras can raise $100,000 on its own. Shin Fujiyama said that the group has currently raised approximately $56,000.
“Car washes, Applebee’s breakfasts, penny drives, auctions — you name it — we are trying to achieve this goal with all that we have,” said Fujiyama. “The walkathon is our last shot at doing this. The past two months trying to raise this money have the most challenging and longest journey of our lives.”
Fujiyama said they expect to have about 2,500 participants at this year’s event, with students from the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, Virginia Tech, Old Dominion University and George Mason University already registered. In addition several high schools, including McLean High School, are forming teams.
Fujiyama said that the experience of putting on last year’s walkathon taught him the value of giving face-to-face presentations on his cause.
“The two months before the walkathon, I make on average about 10 presentations a week to campus clubs, businesses, rotary clubs, churches, temples and even to my dog to practice,” said Fujiyama. “I have about 80 lined up. My legs used to shake when I had to speak in front of a crowd, but I’m getting better now from all the practice.”
Fujiyama added that it has helped him to have the aid and support of his two siblings.
“It’s extremely tough trying to raise $100,000 — the pressure is weighing me down like cement blocks on my shoulders,” said Fujiyama. “After those days with three hours of sleep, two exams, handing out 400 flyers and five Students Helping Honduras presentations, you feel down sometimes. However, I know that Gaku and Cosmo are working hard at their universities so I keep on going forward.”
Gregory Stanton, Ph.D. a professor at Mary Washington University and the president of Genocide Watch, has known Shin Fujiyama since Fujiyama was a seventh grade student. Growing up, Fujiyama was best friends with Stanton’s son, and Fujiyama later took Stanton’s Genocide course at the University of Mary Washington. Stanton said that Fujiyama was one of his best students.
“One thing that I teach my students is that you don’t have to wait until you finish school to change the world, you can do it now,” said Stanton. “Shin really took that message to heart.”
Stanton helped Shin and Cosmo Fujiyama incorporate Students Helping Honduras, and also helped them to apply for the organization’s 501(c)3 non-profit status. Stanton said that Shin Fujiyama’s visit to Copprome and the neighboring village of Siete de Abril “set Shin on fire.”
“Shin is the kind of person who moves mountains,” said Stanton. “I think that Shin Fujiyama embodies the spiritual force that made the universe … I do believe he is going to change the world — I think he’s already begun to do that — and I’m just so proud to have been his teacher.”