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When members of the Koujuen orphanage in Shariki, Japan, first laid eyes on the Americans who had come to help, they were a bit skeptical.

Shunsuke Yamaguichi, the superintendent of the orphanage, with his wife, Junko, said volunteer work in Japan is not common, and they were not accustomed to receiving nice deeds.

Besides, Americans in this small farming village on the Sea of Japan were a bit of an oddity.

For the children at Koujuen, Americans are now among their friends, thanks to the efforts of two government contractors who bridged a relationship with the orphanage more than a year ago.

Steve Hazzard and Isaac Steele, who work at the missile- tracking Shariki Communications Site, said one of their goals in coming to northwestern Japan was to donate some of their time to community service. They found the orphanage when they arrived in June 2006, before they even moved into their living quarters.

“They were excited, because they don’t see Americans in this area,” Hazzard recalled of that first meeting. “They were kind of hesitant, too, because they didn’t understand our intentions.”

Hazzard, Steele and a small group of other Americans at Shariki — there are two U.S. soldiers and about 100 government contractors at the site — have since donated cash and gifts, including children’s bicycles, a washer and dryer, footballs and basketballs. They’ve also taken the kids on outings at Misawa Air Base and thrown a Christmas party for them. Fundraising events, such as the group’s golf tourney planned for Saturday at Misawa, are held for the orphanage.

The orphanage has monetary needs but just as important is spending time with the kids — ages 3 to 18 — the Yamaguichis told Hazzard.

“They’re just as excited to see us as we are them,” Hazzard said.

“They’re happy to see someone actually caring, coming to do something for them,” said First Sgt. Ben Williams, whose unit in Shariki is attached to the 94th Army Air and Missile Defense Command in Hawaii. Williams has participated in three events for the orphanage.

The language barrier isn’t really an issue, Hazzard said.

“The superintendent, he speaks some English,” and the Americans on occasion use an Army interpreter, he said.

Hazzard and Steele said befriending the orphanage has given both sides a unique peek into each other’s cultures.

One of their goals is to take the kids camping.

“They’ve been camping before, but I don’t know what Japanese camping entails” and whether it includes toasting marshmallows by a campfire, Steele said.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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