Max Takuya Kaito is 23-years-old. Unassuming. Smart. Friendly. A UCLA graduate with a degree in biology. Currently busy studying for the MCAT in hopes of getting into medical school. If you looked up the phrase “clean cut,” you’d see a picture of Max. All of this, of course, is a superficial look into his life.
Max is also the child of immigrant parents. A second-generation Japanese American who was born and raised in the South Bay where he lived for the first 14 years of his life. His happy life was abruptly taken away from him when family circumstances forced him to move to Arizona in the middle of his freshman year of high school. Away from a diverse community. Away from his friends. Away from his sister. Away from his sense of self.
He was now one of three Asian Pacific Islanders at school (number two of three was 1/16 Japanese). It was not uncommon for him to be asked: “Do you speak Asian?” or “do you do karate?”
“[It] opened my eyes to how easy it is for mental health to affect a person, and how a simple act, such as talking to friends, can help to counteract the effects of multiple stressors.”
His system was in shock. “I was fairly lonely,” explained Max, “and couldn’t help but [feel] isolated from this new community.” He spent most of his lunches alone, leaning against a tree, with earphones delivering music that could give him a taste of something familiar. Max remembers it as “an extremely stressful experience” in his life. Thankfully the loneliness was short-lived for Max, but it still left a lasting effect.
“[It] opened my eyes to how easy it is for mental health to affect a person,” shared Max, “and how a simple act, such as talking to friends, can help to counteract the effects of multiple stressors.”
That’s why it was an easy decision for Max to step up when a family approached Little Tokyo Service Center, seeking help for their daughter, 10-year-old Mari. The family had recently relocated from Japan to the U.S. With only basic English speaking skills, Mari was having difficulty with her transition. School work was a challenge. And to top it off, she was being bullied for being different.
Max with the other Changing Tides team leaders and the host of last year’s Changing Tides event Carolyn Elliott (center)
“[Her mom] informed me that when she was in Japan, she was energetic, gregarious, and would put on skits for fun.” However, Max noted a different personality. “I couldn’t help but think that she seemed cautious…thinking twice or three times before saying anything.” Max could see how much Mari was struggling, which made him even more determined. “If my bilingualism and my familiarity with Japanese culture could help to integrate her into American society, I was going to give it my all.”
And that’s truly what Max did. Volunteering his time, Max became a tutor, a friend and a mentor to Mari. He even helped Mari’s mom with her English and acclimating her to American culture. Slowly, but surely, Mari began to regain her confidence, her joy and her spark.
Max reminds us that empathy, understanding, openness and human connections can make a difference in people’s lives. He notes that “everyone should be wary of the things in their lives that induce stress, anxiety, and sadness.” No one lives stress free and no one should feel alone in their struggles.That’s why Max and the entire Changing Tides Crew–a young adult group brought together by LTSC’s Social Services Department–is on a mission to de-stigmatize mental health. “By promoting that practicing healthy mental wellbeing is for everyone—not strictly for those with diagnosed mental illnesses–we can open the door to a society more accepting of mental health.”
As for Mari and her mom, “they both are doing very well,” said Jade Yamada, an LTSC Social Worker and Program Coordinator. “They might not have been in the same place without Max’s help. They are extremely grateful [for his] generosity and kindness.”
If we could all have a little Max in us, and recognize that people’s stories run deeper than the surface, then we too could make a difference in people’s minds and people’s lives and help change the tide.
To learn more about LTSC’s Changing Tides initiative and what you can do to make a difference, please visit https://thechangingtides.org/.
The name of the young student Max assisted has been changed in this story to protect the student’s privacy.