Lives beyond the starsBefore the biting weather makesyou feel weary, have a look around.
The world is full of people who arehaving a dismal winter. Many of them are disabled. But they give us the gift of sight - the ability to seehope in a dark place. They may be challenged in ways we cannot imag-ine, but they show us how to appreciate life.
We are about to meet such persons. They are Lee Il-gwon, 32, Yoon Seong-yeon, 19, and Kim Mi-hyang,18. They are mentally disabled, but running a cafe in suburban Seoul-make every effort to enjoy life. And there is also Kim Byeong-ho, 37, whoalthough blind, says the world is stilla place worth living in. As the poet,Park No-han, wrote, humanity is theonly hope.
A man blinded in sight helps others find the way
I open my eyes.
It’s morning again. I slowly move to the veranda and peer out the window. By now, I can hardly make out the letters on the signboard of a shop near my house. I could see them clearly until yesterday. I cannot read another signboard down the street, which yesterday I could read in a blur. I press the palms of my two trembling hands together and pray: “Please, let me have a look at my soon-to-be-born second child, just once.” I hope I can hang onto my feeble eyesight until then.
Tap, tap, tap. Somebody is using a computer keyboard. The sound echoes through the corridor. Listening to the sound, I can tell that this person is a computer guru. I turn the doorknob slowly. The man on the computer raises his head. He is blind. He is Kim Byeong-ho, age 37. Reaching into his pocket, Mr. Kim asks, “Is this my name card?” Indeed, it is. It says, “Computer Instructor.” Mr. Kim has been teaching computers to the blind for seven years. He is happy with the job, but he never imagined this would be his profession. After all, a decade ago, he did not know he would be blind today.
Mr. Kim’s father was a freighter at a transport company in Yeongdong, South Chungcheong province. He was true to job and family, but that alone did not provide a comfortable living for his four children. As a teenager, Mr. Kim decided to attend an industrial high school, to learn technical skills. He was always at the top of his class, but he decided against moving on to college. He was the eldest son of the family and he thought he should provide for his younger brothers and sisters.
After finishing high school, Mr. Kim got a job at the Samsung Electronics factory in Gumi, North Gyeongsang province. After a few years, he was ready to realize his dream of college. After four years of working days and studying nights, he earned a bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering. He thought life just couldn’t be better, especially after tying the knot with a co-worker. Three years later, he realized another dream - a promotion to assistant manager at the factory. Things were perfect.
But something was wrong. When his eyes became inflamed, he shrugged it off. He was too happy to recognize the serious problem. The inflammation did not go away. His eyesight weakened.
When he finally went to a hospital, the doctor diagnosed his problem as uveitis. There was more bad news. If the inflammation spread to the retina, he would lose his eyesight. His wife was having their second baby. He was fortunate enough to see the newborn, but two years later, in 1995, his world was totally dark.
The pain was too much to deal with. But Mr. Kim says he did not have time to indulge in self pity, for he had a family to take care of. After getting training, Mr. Kim found a job as a masseuse.
Then, by chance, hope arrived on his doorstep. In the summer of 1996, Mr. Kim heard about a soundoperated computer system for the blind. In college, he had studied computer-related electronics. He did not hesitate to buy the system. From that day, a new world opened to him.
But he wanted to share his happiness with others. He talked to Samsung about sponsoring computer classes for the blind. Samsung, Mr. Kim’s former company, took up the offer and rehired Mr. Kim, in 1997, as an instructor. Since then, Mr. Kim has taught more than 100 blind people a year. His students have included an illiterate 40-year-old and an unemployed 20-year-old. After taking the classes, the 40-year-old could read and eventually earned a high school equivalency certificate. The 20-year-old got a job.
Last year, Mr. Kim took up the challenge of launching a Web site, anycom.samsunglove.co.kr, offering free classes for the blind. It took only one year for him to amass 1,500 members. What makes him happiest, however, is hearing his children tell their friends, “My dad is blind, but he teaches computers to the blind.” After this interview, Mr. Kim was asked to pose for a photo. Smiling shyly, he said, “If I smile, it would show the gap in my teeth.”
His smile, however, was perfect.
At a countryside cafe, hope keeps on brewing
A small spaghetti restaurant, Cafe Zen, is located near the National Arboretum in Pocheon, Gyeonggi province.
It’s a log cabin, and the sun’s rays stream into the room through the windows.
From its appearance, Zen may look like most of the other cafes in the area. If not for a small placard that reads, “We are together with physically and mentallychallenged friends,” I would not have realized that this cafe was so special.
Shin Sang-gook, a 33 year-old social welfare worker, and his wife Choi Min-sook, 31, opened the cafe two months ago and hired mentally disabled people for their staff.
Two of the employees, Lee Il-gwon, 32, and Yoon Seong-yeon, 19, had been through a year’s training on serving coffee and tea at Cafe Soul, which is run by a religious social welfare group known as Agape.
Mr. Shin had been their teacher at Cafe Soul. Now, Mr. Shin and his wife wanted their disabled friends and students to do more than serve beverages. What if they could learn to make the coffee and work the cash register? Although the Shins’ enthusiasm was high, it was not easy to open the cafe - especially since disabled people were involved.
“You’re gonna do what with the disabled?” said a landlord, who refused to rent to them, fearing the real estate price would plummet. The couple was forced to sell their house to raise the capital needed to start their cafe. At first, the cafe with its staff of two stood empty. But slowly, people started to wander in - and out.
Mr. Shin and his wife escorted their two workers everywhere, from the supermarket to registering the business.
The two disabled workers not only learned how to brew coffee, they learned how to bake bread. Before opening night, after a long struggle, the couple managed to put the two excited, nervous workers to bed. Around 5 a.m. that morning, the entire house was brought to life when, in the dark, somebody cried, “Let there be a lot of customers and let me not fail!” It was followed by sobbing.
Two months have passed since the launch, and the cafe is still empty. The Shins have taken down the placard since every customer, it seems, instantly turns their steering wheel at the words of mentally and physically disabled. Sometimes, customers walk in, and turn to walk out immediately. Everyone on the staff wanted to stop these customers and ask them why they were uncomfortable, but they had to swallow the hard reality.
There was some good done. Mr. Lee and Ms. Yoon would always work hard every day, without any prodding. The two have become quick on their feet and polite. The few customers who make it to the counter say they are overwhelmed by the generosity and promise to come back. Two week ago, 18-yearold Kim Mi-hyang, came on board at Zen. Mr. Lee and Ms. Yoon hope to add a stage to one corner of their shop someday, and bring in bands.
Today, Mr. Lee is in charge of marketing strategy. His co-worker, Ms. Yoon, plans to delve into cooking. The newest member, Ms. Kim, wants to someday become a schoolteacher.
Mr. Shin and his wife say they do not intend to take in any profit from Zen. The couple’s only goal is to train their staff so they can live on their own. One day over a five-hour period, not one customer walked into Zen. But the Shins are determined, and hopeful. They plan to sell paintings drawn by disabled artists and offer a massage class taught by a blind person.
As I walked out of the cafe, a family walked in, and they never steered their wheels toward the exit.
For more information: www.bokjihouse.co.kr (031) 541-5119; www.cafesoul.co.kr (032) 962-2332,
by Son Min-ho, Kim Sun-ha, Lee Kyong-hee