RSVP volunteer Sue Fujino received the Governor’s Award of Excellence for Outstanding Volunteer Service on April 21, 2014 at a ceremony in Olympia. In her citation she is described as a “4’7”, 90 lb dynamo of a volunteer that, despite her petite stature, everyone looks up to!” Sue will be 95 in June, but her smiling face and sharp, clear mind make her seem much younger.
Sue volunteers three days a week at Kokoro Kai, a Nikkei Concerns senior activity day program located in Seattle’s International District. Kokoro Kai (meaning “a meeting of hearts and minds”) offers a structured program designed to provide companionship and help the elderly in the community “maintain independence, enhance their quality of life and promote health and wellness.” A typical day begins with a tea time social followed by game time, exercise time, lunch, and two afternoon activities that range from gentle yoga and crafts to group discussions and bingo. There are monthly outings, an intergeneration visit with 2nd graders, and a monthly group birthday party.
Seeking economic opportunity, Sue’s parents emigrated from Japan to farm berries in Auburn WA (strawberries, raspberries, blackberries). Nine children later (four boys, five girls), thoughts of returning to Japan vanished. Farming is hard work, and Sue remembered getting up at 4 am to pick berries her father would take to market.
On December 3, 1941, Sue married the son of family friends. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Sue and her husband were first sent to a makeshift camp in the Puyallup Fairgrounds before being shipped to the Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho. Two days after arriving in Idaho, Sue’s daughter was born, adding the strain of an infant to her confinement. Later, her son was born in the camp, too.
Released from camp, Sue, her husband, and their two small children moved to a farm in Nyssa, Oregon. Sue described her husband as a “city boy,” not suited to the rigors of farming, so they moved back to Seattle in 1945, where they leased and operated the 100 room Presley Hotel for 17 years. Sue joked that they left the Presley because she got tired of people calling and asking for Elvis! Following the hotel experience, Sue and her husband bought a 29-unit apartment building, which they operated while also holding down other full-time jobs, Sue reconciling accounts for a bank, her husband working for the post office.
Sue retired from the bank at age 69 and two months later she was volunteering at a nursing home, which she did for 10 years. She began volunteering at Kokoro Kai when her husband developed dementia and began utilizing the program. She has been there ever since.
Asked why she volunteers, Sue simply states, “Because I can. I’m thankful to be able to volunteer.” (She is in excellent health.) Furthermore, she adds, “I hate to stay at home; it’s a waste of a life.” At Kokoro Kai, Sue enjoys talking to people (in both English and Japanese), bumping into nice people she hasn’t seen in years, singing, and playing games. (Her favorite game is Rummikub, a tile-based game between two to four people involving strategy and a lot of fun.)
Sue is a model of independent living. She lives alone in a condominium and does her own cooking, cleaning and laundry (including ironing). She gave up driving on her own volition at 93, afraid she might hurt someone. Her daughter calls every day to see how she’s doing, and they go out to dinner once a weekend. Hobbies include knitting, card-making, and reading Danielle Steele novels. Until her hands weakened, she also did decorative knot tying and Bunka Shishu (intricate Japanese embroidery). A devout Buddist, Sue attends services at the Seattle Betsuin Temple every Sunday.
When she was young and living with her family on the Auburn berry farm, Sue’s father told her that, as the oldest daughter, she had a responsibility to set an example for her younger siblings.
Decades later, Sue is setting an example of tireless service to the community.