You can go home again

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You can go home again

A shriek echoes down the hall every so often, but no one seems to notice, not even the puppy that wandered in the front door this morning to hide from the rain.

In the Disabled Children's Home at Angels' Haven, an organization serving the mentally and physically handicapped, these cries are normal. So are 28- year-old men who cannot feed themselves, the pungent aroma of disinfectant over urine and long blank stares into nothing.

April and Emily Brown wouldn't have wanted to volunteer anywhere else.

About 15 international volunteers come here each year, most of them adoptees that grew up in Europe or the United States and are now in their late teens or twenties. Many are originally from Korea and some once lived in the orphanage for healthy children at Angels' Haven. The time they spend here is a sort of homecoming to a life and a past they don't remember, but still feel is a part of them.

That's why the Brown sisters came. April and Emily, now 28 and 26, left Angels' Haven in 1987 for a new life in California. April was already 13 and Emily 11 when they reached the United States; two brothers, one sister, a mother and a father greeted them. A few years later, another Angels' Haven adoptee joined the Brown clan, the big brother Adam. After that came John, another Korean orphan but from a different facility.

In 1986, the director of Angels' Haven, Kyu Hwon Cho, had taken a picture album to America in the hope of finding homes for the orphans inside. The odds of finding adoptive families in the United States were much better than in Korea where domestic adoption is unpopular, often stigmatized as a failure for the adoptive parents who cannot produce their own offspring. Mr. Cho found Joe Brown in California who looked at the pictures and asked about Emily. When he learned that the cute little girl had a sister, he and his wife Leelane agreed to adopt them both. They also tried to adopt the girls' biological baby brother, but ran into problems with the paperwork. He died from heart problems five years ago.

Emily and April's story is different from most Korean-American adoptees, however. Not only is their mother still alive, but she has been in contact with them for their entire lives, writing letters and then making phone calls when her daughters began to forget Korean characters. She even took them to the airport the day they first flew to Los Angeles and attended their graduations at California's Chapman College.

Why, then, did Emily and April leave her? "We had no future here," April says matter-of-factly.

Their father died of a heart attack when they were 5 and 3 years old and their mother was poor. She began working at Angels' Haven in 1986 to ensure that her three children would always have food and shelter. When she learned a year later that an American couple was interested in adopting her girls, she explained the situation to them and outlined the possibilities awaiting them in the United States. Then she asked them what they wanted to do.

"Our mother asked me if I wanted to go and I said yes. I had a choice," April explains. "I knew I had an opportunity to take."

Everyone seemed to agree, but saying so was still painful. "I saw a little disappointment on my mother's face when I told her I wanted to go," Emily says.

Their mother never spoke about her daughters' decision to leave or described what it felt like to revoke custody of her daughters. She says that April and Emily "studied" in the United States for several years when people question where they have been. Otherwise she doesn't speak about her family situation at all. When asked how she reacted when her daughters first told her they were going to spend a year at Angels' Haven, she only replied, "That was very good, very nice."

April says her mother is ashamed that she couldn't give her children everything they needed. She is also embarrassed that they have a different family name, a matter of tremendous importance in Korean culture. Their mother hardly recognizes, however, the strength and love she demonstrated early in their lives. She didn't cry when her daughters left, nor did she burden them with her health problems. Chest pains sent her to the hospital for a triple bypass surgery soon after they left. Today she is in good health.

"She's a strong lady. She's very, very strong deep down inside," Emily says with a soft smile, tucking a lock of her short black hair behind her ear.

Her sister has a different take on the situation, though she usually does. Although Emily thought of April as a mother growing up, the sisters do not have much in common anymore. April likes to sing and dance, with wavy black hair that falls over her thin shoulders. She's independent with a surprising "I'm going to do what I'm going to do" kind of attitude for such a petite frame. Emily will study chiropractic medicine when she gets back to California and says this is the most freedom she's ever had.

"She just plows through things because she has to," April says unapologetically. "I have no problem telling people that I'm adopted, but my mom doesn't like talking about that stuff."

Now the girls are back at Angels' Haven with their biological mother, for a short time anyway. They've returned before, but only for a few weeks at a time. Now they're living with and by their mother, not just visiting. As is the case with so many adoptees that return, though, Korea isn't the missing piece they hoped it would be. Korea and Angels' Haven are not the same anymore. Their mother is older, the country is newer and they are all grown up. Never fully American and not quite Korean, they're stuck in a place somewhere in between where they can never quite fit in.

"You think it's going to be the same, but it wasn't the same," April says. "I'm not really American. I'm not really Korean. I feel like I should be somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean."

One thing hasn't changed though; her mother still works at Angels' Haven, caring for a room of disabled boys in 24 and 48 hour shifts. And now her daughters are catching a glimpse of her life by working with and around her, washing children, teaching lessons and caring for kids who are sometimes in their late twenties. Always in the background, Angels' Haven has added another dimension to a touching family reunion.

"I wanted to know how it is. I wanted to learn," Emily says of her mother's daily routine.

"Taking care of these kids is something my mom has to do everyday," her sister added. "It's really frustrating. I can't do this for the rest of my life or it will drive me crazy."

The seven handicapped children that their mother watches have expanded the family in a sense, and taught them lessons for their own lives. Despite the children's pains and handicaps, which include Down's syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, they always seem to be smiling. It is difficult then, to be angry or sad about the way things have turned out for Emily, April or their mother.

"I think that most of the adoptees who come here, they're hurting," April says. "But by the end, you have less fear of the unknown." And when she returns to California in December, she also hopes to have less fear, less pain and a better understanding of who she has become.

Inside this special place, he's the guy with wings

Kyu Hwon Cho escaped to South Korea with his mother and sister in 1947 while North Korean soldiers fired at them near what is now the Demilitarized Zone, killing his cousin. It is easy to understand then why the word "can't" doesn't register with him. If something needs to get done, Mr. Cho says, it will get done.

Mr. Cho is the director of Angels' Haven, a facility for the disabled situated 10 minutes from Eungam station, northwest Seoul. It began as a tent in 1959 and has grown into a six-building compound that cares for, educates and instills faith in hundreds each day. Surprisingly enough, more than a few people told Mr. Cho that he couldn't do half of the things he's done.

Soon to be 69, Mr. Cho looks like the poster-boy grandfather, with a gentle face, patient eyes and a warm smile. But you don't always have to look tough to beat the odds.

"In my mind, I decided that I would do this for the disabled children," he says matter-of-factly. "Someone has to do something for the disabled children."

Angels' Haven started as a home for orphaned children of the Korean War. Mr. Cho, just out of the ROK army, met the founder, Reverend Sung Yul Yoon, through his church and decided to join the small staff.

Angels' Haven continued to focus on healthy orphaned boys until Mr. Cho visited Seoul's Children Hospital in 1978 where almost 300 disabled kids resided. A doctor told him that the hospital and these children needed help and Mr. Cho agreed. He, of course, would be the one to help them. First, however, there would be problems with money -- there wasn't enough of it. In his line of work, there never is.

"The government didn't give us enough money. I cried everyday," he said with a chuckle. "We' re always short. There's never enough."

So he picked up a pen and wrote to everyone he could think of, schools, churches, companies, and wealthy Koreans. He sent out 2,000 letters and received just 16 replies. But somehow, he still saw the doors of the Eupyung Rehabilitation Home for disabled boys open in 1980. Now he, his wife and his 16-year-old adopted son live there. His two biological daughters once lived at Angels' Haven too. Now, they work there.

Mr. Cho ran into a similar problem when he tried to open a group home for disabled adults, where a few handicapped but functioning grown-ups live together under the supervision of a healthy caretaker. The Korean government, however, refused to pay for it.

"'You should not do this. You can't do this,' my friend told me," Mr. Cho recounts over iced tea. But with the help of a church in the United States that held a collection and sent a volunteer to Angels' Haven, he did it. The group home at Angels' Haven was the first such facility in Korea and now receives public funding.

Today Angels' Haven consists of a rehabilitation center, special school, children's homes for disabled and healthy kids, a rehabilitation hospital and new sports center opening this fall. It offers vocational training, day care, speech therapy and a host of other services for the handicapped, always with a dose of Christian faith.

Facilities like these are in short supply in Seoul, especially in poorer neighborhoods like the one surrounding Angels' Haven. There is a two-year waiting list for therapy sessions and the facility still lacks a home for disabled girls.

Angels' Haven has its own printing company and sells pottery, Christmas cards and handicrafts to raise extra cash. It still relies heavily on private donations to make ends meet, however, because the state covers just 70 percent of its expenses and Mr. Cho insists that everyone in need of help receive it, even if they cannot afford help. It costs just $200 each month to care for a disabled child.

"Eighty percent of my job is letter writing. For 20 years I never had a vacation," said Mr. Cho, who donates about half of his state paycheck to Angels' Haven each year. "I just hope that I will have enough money for all of the people who need help."

Nearly 1,000 children have lived at Angels' Haven with Mr. Cho over the last 43 years. Some even call him father, but he always tells them that he is not their father, that he cannot give them everything. That doesn't mean he won't keep trying though, because, as he said, "I just can't say no."

For more information on Angels' Haven, including how to volunteer or sponsor a child, call (02) 388-0061 or visit

by Daniela SantaMaria

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