Having a meaningful goal can be a source of power, inspiration, and provide guidance to help one through difficult times. Professor Michael Ray turned that insight garnered over 25 years of teaching at Stanford Business School into a book, “The Highest Goal: The Secret That Sustains You in Every Moment.” The key, according to Professor Ray, is to identify and align one’s core values with one’s life’s work. Charles McJilton may never have attended Professor Ray’s classes or read his book. Yet his life’s journey could well have formed one of Professor’s Ray’s case studies. This is Charles’s story.
Charles came to Japan with the U.S. military in 1984. He fell in love with Asia, and eventually returned to Japan in 1991 where he did research for his B.A. at Sofia University in Tokyo while on exchange from the University of Minnesota.
Before arriving in 1991 to study at Sophia, he wrote to a priest at the University asking if it was possible for him to live in a religious community while conducting his research. At the time he was considering becoming a Catholic priest. Upon arriving in Japan the priest told him, “I have a place for you but it is in the ‘slums of Tokyo’ and you will be living with Brothers from India and the Philippines.” The location was San’ya and the religious community was the “Missionaries of Charity” which was founded by Mother Teresa.
San’ya, for those unaware, is an area that dates back to the Edo period. At that time, lower caste workers were forced to live in this overcrowded district by the Buddhist authorities. It remains poor and is special ward of Tokyo.
After living for a time with the Brothers in San’ya, Charles formed a group that launched a self-help center for the men. By 1996 he realized he had much “head knowledge” about the plight of Japanese day-laborers. Something, however, was still missing. While on a six-month missionary training program in Australia, Charles felt “called” to take a closer step in understanding the lives of those he had been interacting with. In January 1997 he went to live along the Sumida River in a cardboard house. Charles only planned to live there until Easter. He ended up spending 15 months along the River.
Something had clicked within Charles that first night along the River when he went to pick up his ration of water. He never felt more alive. Over the next 15 months while working with the poor, Charles discovered a new way of thinking that aligned his work with his core values: Instead of feeling responsible for the world’s problems, he would respond to them. Charles felt he had thrown off the feelings of guilt that had burdened him. He would no longer try to solve all the world’s ills. Instead, he would apply a more pragmatic, yet compassionate, businessman’s approach to social entrepreneurship.
In January 2000 he went to a meeting in San’ya with other representatives from various groups serving the men in the area. The question was raised, “Could we collaborate to share our food resources more efficiently?” He was made a co-chair of this working group. Within two years, on 11 March 2002, an official incorporation meeting was held to inaugurate the launch of Japan’s first food bank.
What is a food bank? Food banks act as the middle person between food donors and food recipients. Importers, wholesalers, manufacturers, and stores throw away an unbelievable amount of food each year. In Japan this ranges between 5-9 million tons. The problem is firms do not have the mechanisms, infrastructure or time to find recipients. On the other hand, welfare institutions such as orphanages would love to have this food. But they do not know how to make use of it. Food banks step in to match donations with recipients.
With a clear understanding of his underlying values, Charles freed himself to enjoy his passion. “Clarifying your values is more important than what you do”, says Charles. “Values help a person to solve their own problems, provided they allow experience to reshape them.” Charles believes people are drawn to others who live life in accordance with their values. They care less about what people actually do.
Today, Second Harvest Japan acts as a conduit through which 650 wholesale food donors provide 1,600 tones of food to more than 200 welfare institutions in the Kanto area and throughout Tohoku. He employs 15 staff, 6 full-time and 9 part-time. The organization has six trucks that are on the road almost every day of the year. There are now 11 food banks in the national network.
In addition to the Food Banking Service, Second Harvest Japan provides a Hot Meal Program that delivers each week 500 ~ 600 hot meals on Saturday to those in Ueno Park. Between Friday meal preparation and Saturday around 70 ~ 80 volunteers help out. The Harvest Pantry Program provides perishable and nonperishable food to low-income households by Takkyubin service, direct pickup at Second Harvest Japan, and through distribution at earmarked locations. Through Advocacy & Development, Second Harvest Japan promotes food banking in Japan.
In addition to aligning one’s career to one’s underlying values, what other tips can Charles offer? “Trust your gut.” “Be kind to yourself when you fail.” “Do what you love.” And, finally, “If you don’t love it, don’t do it.”
Charles McJilton, CEO/Executive Director, Second Harvest Japan, 1F Mizuta Bldg. 4-5-1 Asakusabashi, Taito-ku, Tokyo 111-0053 www.2hj.org