Josh Brazier originally started the Kaiizen Foundation as a T-shirt company in Southern California, where he was born and raised.
“I thought it would be like a surf, outdoorsy company that would donate to causes,” he said.
But his perspective changed entirely when, while he was attending BYU in 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami hit. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in history. Brazier and his friends, including BYU alum Josh Budinger, decided to organize benefit concerts to aid those in need, turning Kaiizen from a for-profit company into a nonprofit.
They started collecting donations and planned a trip down to the El Sauzal Orphanage in Baja, Mexico, in February 2005. Brazier said they fell in love with the kids.
After returning from that exploratory trip, they decided to plan an actual humanitarian trip to Mexico, and 65 people volunteered.
“After that, it just took off,” Brazier said. “We started taking 60 people, then 90 people, and our biggest trip was about 171 people spread out over five orphanages. And then we started expanding to different countries.”
The Kaiizen Foundation offers opportunities for volunteers to participate in projects abroad, including Mexico, India, Peru and Eswatini formerly known as Swaziland. These trips occur mostly during the summer but also throughout other parts of the year. Since Brazier’s first trip, Kaiizen has led over 100 trips and thousands of volunteers around the world.
As the executive director, Brazier coordinates all the projects — as a volunteer. He still has a full time job.
“Everything we do is for the kids,” Brazier said. “We’re an all-volunteer project. So after all these years, we’re able to use our money and our resources for the betterment of the kids. It kind of keeps us grounded in a very simple way.”
The word “Kaiizen” comes from a Japanese word meaning “constant improvement.” Brazier said he gave the foundation the name because he realized he couldn’t solve all the world’s problems in one swoop. So the organization took on the aim to do better — little by little.
“We have a dual mission in the sense that, yes, we help out vulnerable and orphaned children all around the world,” Brazier said. “One of our main priorities is to have our volunteers who come on our trips have their eyes opened and better themselves and better their communities when they get home.”
Despite the good that Kaiizen and similar groups do, there is still an ongoing debate on the effectiveness of volunteering abroad. Some argue that voluntourism — a brand of volunteering involving international travel — does more harm than good, and volunteers should focus on serving their own community rather than traveling to serve in foreign communities for only a week or two.
Brazier said he’s aware of the criticisms, but still feels it’s extremely important for volunteers to get outside of the United States and see what life is like for other people and connect with them.
He said rather than coming in with his own ideas, every humanitarian trip is guided and planned by the community they serve.
“I set up trips that let the community teach us about what they do best, their best practices, and what they need, and we come and assist,” he said. “We always hire people on the ground to help us — we don’t take away jobs from people.”
Some of Kaiizen’s recent projects include building a school and community center and refurbishing about 100 desks in Eswatini and constructing a fish farm in India to help community members become more self-reliant.
Brazier said they also support the Moyer Center in Eswatini, which aids hundreds of orphans and vulnerable children. They also helped start Eswatini’s first male mentoring project, which is now nationwide in Eswatini and is expanding to other countries.
Brazier said they have ongoing relationships with people in the places they go because of their consistency in serving those same places.
“We’re not in it just to take the Instagram photo or the Snapchat or Facebook post. We’re in it for the long run,” he said.
BYU student Daniel Stodtmeister has been involved with Kaiizen since he was 15 years old. He is the program director for the Mexico trips, which Brazier explained was the introductory trip for volunteers to learn about service work in hopes of helping volunteers become more involved.
“I genuinely feel like it’s a family,” Stodtmeister said. “And that’s what we try to portray to (the kids), that we’re not just coming to visit them and play with them and have fun in a (developing country) and then leave, but we always let them know that we’re coming back.”
Brazier always tells volunteers they have 36 hours after a trip to make the experience into something lasting by helping others and keeping the momentum going. He said over 4,000 volunteers have gone around the world with Kaiizen in the last 15 years and had their eyes opened. These people can think about life differently and make an impact on their communities or in their families, he said.
That momentum has evidently made a difference. Brazier noted that many projects have been started by former volunteers, both in their own communities and abroad.
BYU student Ashlyn Bacon said her experience with Kaiizen in Mexico helped her realize the little things count.
“You just really get to bond with the kids,” she said. “And you actually build relationships but also feel like you’re doing more for them.”
After Bacon’s first trip with Kaiizen, she wanted to get more involved — so she applied to be an intern. Interns meet monthly to plan the trips and recruit volunteers.
Interns for the Mexico trips also lead the projects, like doing art with the kids, building a wall around the orphanage to keep it up to code, painting murals, and so on.
BYU graphic design student Ryann Woods has been on several Mexico trips with Kaiizen and helps paint murals on the orphanage walls. Woods says she enjoys artistry that can bring hope to the children.
“I really do think it makes a difference to have beautiful things in their space and just have something to dream about and look towards and impact them,” she said.
Kaiizen tries to support the local businesses where they serve by buying supplies like paint and tools from the shops and eating from local vendors.
Bacon said she thinks college students may be hesitant to get involved with organizations like Kaiizen because of the seemingly tedious sign up process. But once people realize the simplicity of getting involved, she said, it becomes more of a realistic option. She also stressed it’s not necessary to know the language before going.
“We just want people to get involved, and we have plenty of projects and ways for people to get involved,” Brazier said.