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Sebastopol’s civic award program honors one of the town’s indefatigable volunteers

On August 7, the Sebastopol City Council selected Meg Mizutani as the second in its series of “Locals Who Make a Difference.”

Most people know Mizutani in the context of her work with Sebastopol World Friends, the group behind the town’s sister city relationship with Takeo City in Japan and Chinrin in Ukraine.

Indeed, the group’s motto exemplifies Mizutani’s life purpose: “World peace, one friend at a time.”

But Sebastopol World Friends isn’t the only organization to benefit from Mizutani’s talents. She has also volunteered for many other organizations, including the Sebastopol Education Foundation, Sonoma County Taiko, the Sonoma County Matsuri Festival, and Cittaslow Sebastopol. (See sidebar for details)

Mizutani, who was born and raised in Japan and moved to Sebastopol in 1996, never set out to be a super volunteer. “It all happened organically,” she said. “It started 20 years ago when my son’s preschool teacher asked me if I could talk to the class about Japanese holiday celebrations. I was thrilled to be invited. Since then, one thing has led to another. I feel very fortunate that I have been able to work with many great organizations and amazing people in the community.”

Mizutani, who has a BA in international relations from Sophia University in Japan and a MS in educational psychology from Cal State East Bay, has volunteered for many organizations, doing a wide variety of tasks, but she said her favorite type of volunteering involves “organizing events or activities where the community comes together for a common goal.”

“For example, the Friendship Dinner, a benefit event for Sebastopol World Friends, attracts people from all over the community and beyond. They may not be involved with sister city activities, but they come to support the work we do for global peace. It is fun and rewarding to witness such celebrations,” she said.

Mizutani credits Sebastopol’s strong volunteer ethos for inspiring her own volunteer efforts. “I started volunteering after I moved to Sebastopol. The Sebastopol community taught me how citizens can empower the community and themselves by volunteering.”

“I am so humbled and honored to receive this recognition,” she said. “Having grown up in a big city with no sense of community, I feel so lucky that my family and I live in a town that we can call ‘our community.’ Many people take their communities for granted, but, to me, having a community and being able to help that community are extraordinary privileges. I am forever grateful!”

Here’s a short list of Mizutani’s volunteering activities over the years:

Sebastopol World Friends

If you have heard about our sister city relationship with Takeo City in Japan, very likely that is because of Meg Mizutani. She and her team manage the Takeo City exchange. For 15 years, Mizutani and her group have worked to create exchanges where American and Japanese middle school students are paired together over a two-year period.

One year the Japanese students come stay for two weeks with their American partners. The next year the American students stay in the homes and visit with their Japanese counterparts. On these trips, Mizutani spends hours translating English to Japanese and Japanese to English, all the while serving as a gracious hostess and a flawless tour manager.

“I always encourage both the Sebastopol students and the Japanese students to learn from each other. At the same time, I emphasize that this is an excellent opportunity to learn about themselves,” she said. “Until we step out of a familiar environment, we don’t fully understand and appreciate our life styles and values since we take them for granted.

“Also, I want them to know that cultural differences and language barriers don’t stop us from building friendships. Whether in Sebastopol or our sister city in Japan, the students are all cared for and loved by their host families, and they build lifelong friendships.”

Sebastopol Education Foundation

Mizutani served in a leadership role at Sebastopol Education Foundation for 10 years. The foundation is much like a PTA, coordinating parent volunteers and raising funds that go toward enhancements like field trips, chemistry supplies and art projects.

Those who fondly remember “Much Ado About Sebastopol,” the Renaissance Faire at Ives Park, have Mizutani and the team at the education foundation to thank. The huge, all-volunteer effort raised more than $45,000 one year to support extra materials for Sebastopol schools.

It was also one of Mizutani’s most memorable volunteer jobs: “Much Ado About Sebastopol was a true testament to how much a group of parents can accomplish with support from the community.”

Sonoma County Taiko

For 12 years, Mizutani has been performing and teaching this Japanese art form that combines powerful percussion and synchronization with elements of dance. The goal of Sonoma Taiko is to build a community of acceptance, harmony and respect through a love of Taiko drumming. Mizutani loves teaching people how drums “talk” and helping them experience the full-bodied thrill of loud, joyful drumming. Taiko drumming is what Mizutani does in her spare time, when she’s not volunteering.

Sonoma County Matsuri Festival

Mizutani serves as the treasurer of the Sonoma County Matsuri Festival organization, which puts on an annual festival in Santa Rosa celebrating Japanese art and culture. Funds raised at the festival provide scholarships to schools and students working on projects related to Japanese culture, with the hope that sharing the perspective of the Japanese people will allow others to catch a glimpse of commonality and shared humanity.

Cittaslow Sebastopol

Mizutani also makes time to serve on the steering committee of Cittaslow Sebastopol. “Cittaslow Sebastopol’s principles perfectly represent what I value in my community, so I jumped in,” Mizutani said. “By helping Cittaslow Sebastopol, I gained unique perspectives on how citizens can help shape their communities.”

“Meg has been deeply involved in so many of our projects, it’s hard to name them all,” Tasha Beauchamp of Cittaslow wrote in a paean to Mizutani. “Highlights include managing the performers at the Gratitude Open House following last October’s fires; data entry for all our surveys and mailing list needs; creative insight as we constructed the Experience Sebastopol website.”

“Most of all we value Meg’s wise counsel as an experienced nonprofit leader,” Beauchamp wrote, “helping us to continue and grow as the positive force for collaboration we strive to embody.”