Hearty meals for the homeless

Group organizes volunteer efforts in Seoul online

Sept 08,2009
PLUR members serve food to homeless people last Friday at the Resurrection Center near Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul. The members take up several different roles, including serving food, cleaning tables and washing meal trays and eating utensils. By Kim Mi-ju
For expats who want to immerse themselves in the spirit of volunteering, it can be somewhat difficult to find work with soup kitchens, orphanages and other nonprofit organizations because of the language barrier.

That’s where Peace, Love, Unity, Respect comes in.

The online-based group launched in October 2007 by gathering together volunteers to serve hearty dinners to homeless men every Friday night at the Resurrection Center near the Sookmyung Women’s University subway station in Seoul. Formed by Korean-American Daniel Oh and a handful of volunteers, PLUR has expanded quickly, picking up dozens of active members and organizing efforts on Saturday and Sunday nights, too.

The group’s main focus, however, still involves helping out at the Resurrection Center on Fridays, where volunteers keep busy throughout the night.

Last Friday, roughly 170 homeless men crowded the basement of the center, waiting in lines to fill their empty stomachs.

The menu for the night included kimchi, dotorimuk (or acorn jelly mixed with seasoned vegetables), jeyukbokkeum (spicy stir-fried pork) and sogogimuguk (beef and radish soup) with steamed rice.

As they scooped up food and piled it onto plates, volunteers Rachel Fox, Kat Park and Jang Yoong-hui smiled and said “Masitkedeuseyo,” or “Enjoy your meal, sir,” to the men that filed past.

One man wolfed down his meal and then came back for another helping.

“Thank you,” the man said in English, still munching on a mouthful of food as the volunteers filled his plate with more.

Volunteers serve in a variety of capacities at the center. On this night, Amanda Hernandez, an American English teacher and co-president of PLUR, washed chopsticks and spoons. She said serving kimchi is the hardest task for volunteers, as it’s easily the most popular food item among the hungry men.

Unlike other side dishes - where there is plenty to go around - there is only one tray of kimchi, so it must be doled out carefully or there won’t be enough for everyone in line.

Some longtime volunteers with PLUR have discovered their own techniques for dealing with such demand.

“There was a volunteer, who left recently, that worked with kimchi every time she came here,” Hernandez said. “She split each serving of kimchi into several pieces before serving it so it would look like there was more of it.”

Volunteers who have participated several times said that they know the faces - and preferences - of regulars.

“Sometimes you notice that people who normally show up are not here,” said Rachel Fox, an English teacher from Canada who coordinates the Friday night volunteer effort for PLUR and has been with the group since March 2008.

“Especially when you’re serving, you remember the faces ... and you kind of get to know some of their personalities.”

Fox, who was serving dotorimuk, clearly remembered a man in a silver shirt, noting that he can only eat soft food because he doesn’t have any teeth.

“When he comes he always asks for gukmul [soup] and soft foods rather than kimchi,” Fox said.

Although language barriers can present problems in some volunteering opportunities, that isn’t the case here.

“PLUR members have the spirit for volunteer work, and we can communicate our thoughts without talking,” said Baek Geum-ja, the Resurrection Center’s nutritionist, who assigns jobs to PLUR members. “Just eye contact is enough. I don’t take any other volunteer groups on Fridays so I can reserve the night exclusively for PLUR, because they are so committed to the work.”

The center prepares enough food each day to serve 170 homeless people dinner on a first-come, first-served basis, from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

But on this recent Friday, the volunteers are so skilled at serving the appropriate amounts of food that there’s enough left over for an additional 10 people.

After the serving period ended, PLUR members gathered at a cafe to chat about the day’s activities and what they get from volunteering at the center.

“I’m just really, really happy because [the nutritionist] said I can give a lot today,” said Kat Park, a Korean-American graphic designer who served meat dishes that night. “The last two weeks we ran out of food and I felt terrible. We were pulling out all the leftovers from the fridge ... random stuff. I’m glad I gave them a lot today.”

Volunteers say PLUR offers an easy way to help out in the community.

Thency Gunasekaran, a Malay student earning her master’s degree at Ewha Womans University, randomly came across the group while searching for volunteer opportunities in Korea.

“Being a non-Korean, it is hard to find volunteer work,” Gunasekaran said. “[PLUR] provides an easy way to get opportunities to give back to society. It’s nice to meet people from different walks of life.”

PLUR welcomes Koreans who are eager to help others as well.

Jang Yoong-hui, a Korean student at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and co-president of PLUR, said his personal experiences growing up keep him coming back to volunteer.

“When I was in the sixth grade in elementary school, a flood swept my hometown of Yeoncheon,” Jang said. “Every valuable belonging was washed away, and my family’s house was destroyed. We had a hard time getting back to a normal life.

“Volunteers who came across the country helped us to restart our lives, and that inspired me to get involved in volunteer work.”

Besides serving food on Friday evenings, PLUR focuses on two other volunteer efforts. On the last Saturday of every month, PLUR volunteers visit the Hyang-ae Orphanage.

The A(H1N1) influenza outbreak, however, forced the group to cancel visits in August, as people in areas adjacent to the orphanage came down with the virus.

Every Sunday evening, PLUR volunteers also visit homeless people around Seoul Station, passing out food and any other donations they have. The group also will hold a shoe drive on Sept. 20 in the Hongdae area. As part of the drive, volunteers will collect used and new shoes and distribute them to the homeless before the cold weather arrives.

There’s no requirement for joining the group. But those who want to participate need to confirm ahead of time that they will attend. Activity coordinators send out invitations and updates every week on Facebook.

Gina Lee, a Korean-Canadian coordinator of the Sunday activity, said people who RSVP but then have to back out should remove their names from the list at least 24 hours before the event.

That gives other volunteers an opportunity to participate, she said.

Those who are interested in joining the group’s activities can search on Facebook using the query “volunteer for PLUR.”

By Kim Mi-ju [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]

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