‘Optimistic Explorer’ Leads Service Trips to Make the World a Better Place

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Alisa Matsuzaki with a rainbow created by children at the Hogar Cristiano Orphanage in Costa Rica. Photo by Matthew Borror.

Alisa Kumiko Matsuzaki is a world explorer searching for more than just exotic destinations. She’s searching for hope, optimism, and new ways to make the world a better place. And everyone is invited to join her.

The San Jose freelance web designer is pursuing her passions of volunteer service, cultural exchange, and travel, through organizing service trips to foreign countries, as well as here in the U.S.

Although a number of her trips are done in conjunction with larger nonprofits—she’s leading a trip in April to volunteer with an organization in New Orleans—she recently returned from a Costa Rican service trip she organized with the help of friends.

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A volunteer plays with children at Hogar Cristiano Orphanage in Puentarenas, Costa Rica. Photo by Matthew Borror.

In February, Matsuzaki and some friends from around the U.S. traveled to the Hogar Cristiano Orphanage in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, where they were joined by approximately 15 volunteers who live in the country, a handful of them U.S. expats. Together they put on a weekend of fun, entertainment, and caring activities for 70 to 75 orphans ranging in age from infants to 17.

Last year she took a small group to Japan, to help with earthquake and tsunami rebuilding, and she’s also traveled around the world to volunteer on Habitat for Humanity projects in Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, Guatemala, and Argentina.

“The great thing about these trips is you meet all these cool people,” Matsuzaki said, both the people she serves and the like-minded volunteers she partners with.

“I love to Explore”

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area she leads a Meetup group called Ai Explore, which engages members in local volunteer projects, wilderness hikes, enjoying international cuisine, and other experiences. The group’s tagline is, “Exploring global optimism.”

“Ai” means “love” in Japanese, making the group’s name more or less, “I love to explore.”  The group’s symbol is a “half full” glass imprinted with a map of the world, to symbolize the optimism Matsuzaki wants to share with others.Ai-Explore-Meetup-Alisa-Matsuzaki

The group includes more than 250 “Optimistic Explorers”, as they are called. In January members traveled to Año Nuevo State Park, and later that month served meals at Loaves and Fishes Family Kitchen in San Jose. On April 13, the group will plant trees in honor of Earth Day.

Matsuzaki said she loves Ai Explore, because it combines her interests and skills with the opportunity to make “instant friends to explore the world with.”

Making Friends in Costa Rica

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Children at Hogar Cristiano Orphanage gather around a book with a volunteer. Photo by Matthew Borror

At the Costa Rican orphanage, Hogar Cristiano, Matsuzaki and a number of volunteers bonded with children they came to serve.

“Within 10 minutes of being there, a boy of about 9 grabbed my hand,” she said.  He became her “instant buddy” throughout the weekend.

Matsuzaki and fellow trip mates brought donations of clothing, shoes, and other items collected from friends and coworkers, and spent a few days in Puntarenas gathering more items to create personalized gift bags for each child.

When the weekend came, the volunteers—including artists, massage therapists, dance instructors, and a special education teacher, among others—led the children in a wide array of activities, from singing, dancing, mural painting, sports, and even Hula Hoops.

“I learned how to Hula Hoop!” Matsuzaki said with a smile.

Some of the volunteers spent the weekend holding infants, others played with older children, or conversed with teens. Volunteers also did work projects around the campus.

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Children receive personalized gift bags on the last day. Photo by Matthew Borror.

On Sunday there was a farewell performance, with children sharing the songs or dance moves they learned, and a slide show created by a volunteer photographer. They concluded by calling out each child’s name to present the gift bags.

Difficult Leaving

When the weekend was over it was painful leaving behind their “instant buddies,” she said.

“We had a hard time leaving the kids we had become attached to,” she said, adding that it’s not unusual for volunteers who embark on short-term service trips to feel somewhat anxious and conflicted when they return home.

“You need some time to decompress, debrief, and get back into the real world. There’s always a part of me that wants to give away everything I have, stay there forever, adopt a child,” she said with a laugh. “Because I realize how much I have and how much they don’t have. But then I realize that isn’t really the answer; just to give stuff isn’t the answer.”

Matsuzaki said she’s now looking ahead to possibly returning to Hogar Cristiano with another group next year, possibly adding in services that will offer longer-lasting solutions. Offering job skills training to older teens who are about to age out of the orphanage, for example. She plans on getting feedback from the nuns who run the orphanage, as well as the other volunteers.

Future Explorations

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A boy and his bike at the orphanage. By Matthew Borror

In addition to the upcoming trip to New Orleans (the cutoff for registering is March 15), Matsuzaki has possible plans in the works for a trip to Nicaragua, where a friend has family, and they know of school that needs building.

She’s always looking ahead toward new local experiences with the Ai Explore group, as well.

Whatever the experience or travel, Matsuzaki will always combine her optimism, passion, gifts, and a love of connecting with others.

“I came to the conclusion that my purposes in life are, one, to live life to the fullest; and, two, to use my unique gifts—organizing, exploring, rallying, nurturing, brainstorming, creating and connecting—to make the world better.”

For more information about upcoming trips, contact Matsuzaki at amatsuza@yahoo.com. For more information about Ai Explore, see the Meeup page.

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Children show off the shoes donated by Zappos, where volunteer Andy Cassidy works. Zappos donated more than 70 pairs. Cassidy also collected more than 70 pairs of pants from coworkers and friends to bring to the orphans. Photo by Matthew Borror.

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Photo by Matthew Borror

 

 

 

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