Phoning it in isn’t an option for Shin Fujiyama ’07. At UMW, he threw himself into every assignment, task and responsibility – from serving hungry students in Seacobeck to organizing a thousand-person walkathon.
Now, living in Honduras in the midst of a global pandemic, Fujiyama is focused on rescuing the nonprofit he started at Mary Washington, Students Helping Honduras (SHH). While his American and European staff were evacuated due to the coronavirus threat, Fujiyama stayed behind to care for 24 orphaned kids at a children’s home he founded. To keep his dream alive of building schools across the impoverished country, he is relying on support from former professors and fellow alumni.
“My conviction to see this through has always been strong,” said Fujiyama, who started SHH 14 years ago with sister Cosmo, then a student at William & Mary. Since graduation from UMW, he’s lived in Honduras and oversees the nonprofit, which has over 50 chapters nationwide and has seen thousands of volunteers over the years.
Then came COVID-19.
“There’s a chance Honduras will face food shortages, civil unrest and massive outbreaks of the virus,” he said. “We need to confront those challenges together.”
The country is in full lockdown because hospitals – the second weakest in the Western Hemisphere, Fujiyama said – weren’t prepared to handle the virus. Grocery stores, pharmacies and banks are closed, as are schools, including the 55 built by the nonprofit. Hondurans, who make up most of SHH’s 80-member staff, cannot leave their homes without risking arrest.
Just four staff members were allowed to stay at Villa Soleada Children’s Home to help Fujiyama care for two dozen children, whose ages range from 3 to 20. Many have special needs and require lots of love and attention, he said.
A daily routine of homework, chores, exercise and free time keeps the children’s lives as normal as possible. Teens have stepped up, cooking meals and engaging the children in art lessons and soccer practice. Once the youngsters fall asleep, the older kids catch up on social media, watch television and discuss their lives, relationships and the current state of the world.
Hondurans are resilient, Fujiyama said, having endured earthquakes, hurricanes, social upheaval, extortion threats and gang violence. “I’ve learned a lot about courage and perseverance from them.”
Fujiyama has weathered storms before and hopes the nonprofit will, too. But construction has come to a halt on the next four schools the organization is building, and over 200 grassroots fundraising events have been canceled. On the phone day and night, he’s trying to raise money for SHH’s new initiative, The Tigers Club. The dollar-a-day sponsorship program matches donors with students they can follow from cradle to college, and will provide the stability the nonprofit needs to survive.
“If we don’t make drastic changes, SHH will cease to exist within a year,” Fuijyama said. “A recurring, monthly donation allows us to plan better, make bolder decisions and think long term.”
He’s reached out to the professors and classmates who helped SHH get its start. Bob Azzarito, former pastor of UMW’s Campus Christian Community, and Economics Professor Shawn Humphrey continue to provide guidance and serve as a sounding board.
“Shin staying behind in Honduras is not surprising,” said Humphrey, whose programs at UMW, like the Two Dollar Challenge and La Ceiba Microfinance, influenced Fujiyama’s commitment to fight global poverty through grassroots organizing. “His dogged determination makes him a role model for anyone who aspires to change the world.”
Donations have come from alumni, including his former roommate, club soccer teammates and a chemistry lab partner Fujiyama hasn’t seen since graduation. And faculty past and present have donated, including Mary Washington’s Chief of Staff Jeff McClurken, the first professor to give to SHH, Fujiyama said, “when all I had was a plastic penny jar and a wild idea.”
“Service is in UMW’s DNA,” said Fujiyama. Perhaps it’s the legacy of Dr. James L. Farmer Jr., the late civil rights icon and Mary Washington history professor, he said, that drives the campus community to action.
“Things might have been different had I gone to another school, but everyone at Mary Washington showed up when I started SHH. And they still do.”