7 year-old Maya Hope Saidel and her father Andrew Saidel contacted our organization after the devastating earthquake and tsunami on 3/11 from their home in North Potomac, Maryland. Their hearts were broken for the people (and especially the children) of Japan and they wanted to help. Maya quickly put that compassion to work. With a big heart, determination and support from her family and the community, Maya spearheaded the project, ‘Toys for Tohoku’—collecting hundreds of toys to send to kids in the affected regions of Tohoku. It is now our mission at Living Dreams to hand-deliver these toys and letters this summer across the 19 children’s homes we are working with in the Tohoku region.
Maya is a reminder that with compassion, passion and determination, anyone can make a difference. She didn’t let the enormity of the situation deter her—she figured out what she could do within her own local community and she made it happen. We salute you Maya Saidel!
Living Dreams: Many people have been so inspired by you Maya, but they would also ask, how does a 7 year-old have such a grasp of the human spirit and know how to take this kind of action–what would you tell these people? Can you explain why you came up with this ‘Toys for Tohoku’ project and how you knew you could do it?
Maya: When I saw the pictures of the earthquake and the tsunami, I thought that I wanted to help. So many children had lost everything, their belongings, their house, and their relatives. It was so sad. I couldn’t imagine what I would feel like if it happened to me. I knew I could help, because I saw that people were desperate and in need of love. And for me love is something that you hold onto forever, which is like a toy. I thought that it would be nice to make every child smile when they hold onto a toy.
I am half Japanese, because my mother was born in Osaka, Japan. I attend Japanese school every Saturday, and I visit Japan every summer to spend time with my Japanese family. I love Japan, and my family background makes me especially connected to the country.
Living Dreams: So, how did you actually make this happen? Did you tell all of your friends and family, teachers at school? And did you find that news about your project spread quickly to many other people? How many toys did you actually get in the end?
Maya: First, after I thought of this idea to start Toys for Tohoku, I told my best friends. They really supported me, starting with Alina, my best friend. I asked my teacher and my principal if I could ask the whole school to participate. They said yes, and I made a morning announcement. Then all the kids brought toys to school. I asked my Japanese school teacher to help, and then we asked several other schools to join us. Soon many children donated toys, and it got bigger and bigger. Families in my neighborhood, and also as far away as Florida donated toys to Toys for Tohoku. Over 400 kids participated. It really caught on. We collected 850 toys in total. Every toy has a note with it.
Living Dreams: How long did it take you to collect, wrap up and box all these toys? I hope you had some help!
Maya: The whole project took about three months. After we collected each toy, my Dad and I inspected it, wrapped it in a clear bag, and included a note with it to every child. Yes I had some help, from my Dad.
Living Dreams: Who helped inspire you to do the Toys for Tohoku Project?
Maya: My Dad inspired me, because he told me that one 7-year old girl can actually change the world. I believe my Dad!
Living Dreams: What valuable things did you learn from this experience?
Maya: I learned that if you wish something, the wish can only take you half way. So you have to really work hard to make it come true. I also learned that many people are so important to make this wish come true, and I want to thank all of them. For example, ANA helped us bring the toys to Japan, and then Nittsu (Japan Express) helped drive the toys to Living Dreams. The Japanese Embassy also really helped me. And of course Living Dreams and Smile Kids Japan who are bringing the toys to the children.
Living Dreams: Do you think you will continue to make a difference and inspire others? (All of us at Living Dreams certainly think you will!)
Maya: Yes I will continue. I am now thinking of my next project. This one will help homeless people. When I walk down the street in Washington, DC, I see too many people suffering with no food or water. I feel bad for them. I also want to start a company called Green People, which will help the earth to be healthy. But first I want to make sure that the kids in Tohoku get the toys!
Living Dreams: We will make sure that happens and we look forward to hearing about your future projects! Finally Maya, what would you like to say to the children in Tohoku who have suffered a lot these past few months?
Maya: I would like to say that I admire the children of Japan, because they held on after the earthquakes and tsunami, and even the aftershocks, and tried not to cry. I want to say to please do your best, and a very good future will come. And please play with these toys. It is important to have happiness in your life. Try not to let the sadness get in the way of your happiness. Love, Maya
Living Dreams to Maya’s Mom and Dad: Were you surprised that Maya came up with this project and managed to pull it off?
Maya’s Mom and Dad: We knew that Maya was being deeply impacted by the sights and sounds of the horrible events of March 11. We were not surprised by her reaction, but we were delighted to discover her determination to make Toys for Tohoku a success. She never wavered in her focus or energy to overcome the challenges that came along the way in this project.
Living Dreams: Do you think this project helped to inspire community service with other kids/individuals in your area? And do you think it’s something that Maya herself will continue to do for various causes?
Maya’s Mom and Dad: We hope that Toys for Tohoku will indeed be an inspiration to other children in our area. Maya’s school recognized her at the end of the year with a special certificate for caring. Ambassador Fujisaki presented Maya with his personal medallion at his residence to say thank you for Toys for Tohoku. Maya gave Ambassador Fujisaki a Toys for Tohoku bracelet. We feel the project has had a deep and lasting impact on Maya herself. She has learned so much, and it has become part of her. She saw first-hand that it takes inspiration to have a good idea, but it takes passion, perseverance, and people to move an idea into reality. She brought the passion each day and the determination.
Each week gave us different challenges in the project, for example reaching out to different schools, finding a partner in Japan, finding a transport partner, working on the customs procedures, and finally ensuring that the toys could actually get from the airport to Living Dreams. We made sure that Maya understood each of these steps, and what was happening. For her, the only thing that mattered was getting the toys to the children as fast as possible. This became a shared goal of everyone who came into contact with the project. I remember speaking with my friend Peter Kelley at the National Association of Japan America Societies, and he said “I think we have located a wonderful organization for Maya.” That was how we came to learn about you and Living Dreams.
We all sensed that the project was from kids to kids, and our role was to help that connection happen. We were so fortunate to be able to partner with such wonderful people, beginning with Living Dreams and Smile Kids Japan, who have been so essential to make Toys for Tohoku successful.
Living Dreams: What was your favorite moment of this experience so far?
Maya’s Mom and Dad: Our favorite moment was packaging each toy in our basement with Maya. Each toy took on a special spirit, and a special mission. For days and days we went through the toys and notes, and when we finally shut the boxes we felt each toy became an ambassador of love, from children in America to the children of Tohoku. The other moment that was very special was when we said goodbye to the toys at the Japan Express warehouse next to Dulles Airport. Maya saw that her dream was becoming real. We thought of the plane as it flew overhead that week, knowing that the toys were flying from our hearts to Tohoku.
Living Dreams would like to thank Maya and her family, ANA, Peter Kelley, Nittsu, Japanese Embassy, and our hardworking Home Communication Managers and volunteers for Tohoku children’s homes for helping carry out this project from beginning to its eventual ‘end’—into the arms of the kids in Tohoku.