Phyllis and her husband, Eugene, at VHBT Obon Festival (2015)

Volunteering is one popular way our community members feel purpose in their life. This can be at events, fundraisers, and programs at their local community organizations, temples, or churches.

One summertime event that gathers members of the Japanese and Japanese American communities at large is Obon. It takes a village to host an Obon Festival, and many festival attendees may not realize the behind-the-scene contributions made by volunteers. Keiro interviewed Phyllis, 71, who has been volunteering at Obon food booths at Venice Hongwanji Buddhist Temple (VHBT) for close to 30 years, and continues to find great joy in serving her temple community. 

From Taking on One Shift to Becoming Co-Chair

Wonton plate sold at VHBT Obon Festival (2014)

Phyllis has been an active member of the temple since the mid-1990s. She is currently the corresponding secretary and is wrapping up her third year on the temple’s board of directors. Additionally, she is an active member of the temple’s Fujinkai, or more formally, the Buddhist Women’s Association, and has taken on several leadership roles in that group. With her involvement came along different events to volunteer at such as the chirashi sale, Virtual Lumbini Boutique, and, one of the larger events, the two-day Obon Festival. 

The Fujinkai has played a key role in the food booths at the temple’s Obon Festival, primarily being assigned to lead the wonton booth for many years. However, Phyllis shared that although the temple’s organizations may be assigned to lead a booth each year, every member has the choice to help out different booths such as teriyaki chicken, snow cones, dango, sushi, and salad. 

In the beginning, Phyllis didn’t start off in a leadership role for the Obon Festival. She initially signed up for a shift or two to work in the booth on the day of the Festival. However, she shared, “I realized I should help the Fujinkai more in terms of not just running the food booth on the two days of the Obon Festival, but also on the shopping, prepping, cooking, and organizing. So, I gradually became involved with that and then became the wonton booth co-chair.”

All Hands on Deck for the Big Weekend

Although the Fujinkai has not led the wonton booth in recent years due to the 2018 wonton booth hiatus and the 2020 and 2021 pandemic years, Phyllis shared how much work goes into preparing for the big days. As former co-chair, the team would begin preparing in December and continue through the following months for a July Obon Festival. Throughout the first half of the year, they would work on taking inventory of what’s available, scheduling the purchasing of ingredients, and coordinating volunteers.

The wonton gu, or meat and vegetable mixture, is typically prepared on the day before the event, and all of the wontons are folded early in the morning on the days of the Obon Festival by a large group of volunteers. In 2022 with the leadership of the Sangha Initiative, composed of the yonsei leaders, they prepared the wrapped wontons the weekend before and froze them to save time on the days of the Obon Festival.

Frying wonton on camp stoves the year both deep fryers stopped working. The deep fryers have since been repaired. (2017)
Pouring sauce into lidded cups, after cooling, refrigerating, and stirring (2022)
Volunteers putting up the booth tents (2013)

Days before the Obon Festival, all hands are on deck to set up the tents and gas cooking appliances, such as fryers, to get the food ready. Once the Obon Festival starts, volunteers take their shifts to start the fryers, cook the wontons, take the wontons out of the fryer, assemble and pack the food, and handle the money. 

“No matter how we try to organize it efficiently, there is always a line for wontons!” Phyllis said. In 2019, the temple sold over 7,000 wontons in just two days!

Expressing Gratitude through Volunteering

After 30 years, Phyllis reflected on why she continues to come back each year. “I want to show my appreciation to the ladies who have been doing this 10 years longer than I have. If we’re still able-bodied, I think we should do what we can because it is all for the temple. We look to the ladies before us and how hard they worked, and we want to work hard, too.”

Fujinkai, ABA, family, and friends of VHBT folding wontons (2022)

What she enjoys most about the Obon Festival is seeing the months of planning come to fruition on the day of the event. “[My favorite part is] the satisfaction of seeing a finished product, everyone working in the booth smoothly, and eating!” She added that she also enjoys how the Obon Festival is like a big annual reunion. She loves seeing people come back to support the temple and getting the chance to engage socially with many people in the neighborhood as well.

She shared that volunteering in the community does give her a reason to wake up in the morning every day. “My daughter asked me recently, ‘Do you like being crazy busy all the time?’ I told her, ‘I don’t really like being crazy busy, but it gives me a purpose in life.’”

Phyllis expressed deep admiration for all of the hard working people at the temple who continue to make it such an open and family-oriented community. “It is very gratifying to see that Venice Hongwanji is still a very vibrant temple.” She is looking forward to seeing how the next generation makes their mark for years to come.