Foreign women bringing heart to SeoulOver large cups of cappuccino in a sun-drenched room at the Seoul Club, three women on the welfare committee of the Seoul International Women’s Association met recently to talk about their visit to a shelter for sexually abused children in the capital, which occurred the day before.
The memory of the visit disturbs Mary Morrison, Hahm Wha-sook and Choi Kyoung-ja . “Families try to cover up sexual abuse,” says Ms. Choi, a member of the SIWA welfare committee and former first vice president of the Canadian Women’s Club. “They tell these girls to shut up and be quiet. Where can she go? What about her life?” she asks, her eyes widening.
The shelter has offices on the first floor of a nondescript three-story building, with therapy rooms on the upper floors to protect the privacy of the children, who are removed from their families for their protection. Since 1999, SIWA has donated more than 20 million won ($17,500) to the shelter for counseling and education, and its members were following up with their recent visit.
“The counselors are teaching the children to live normal lives without shame and to work with them to recognize that what happened was not their fault,” said Ms. Morrison.
SIWA has a history of service since the association’s inception in 1956. The objective then, according to Ms. Morrison, was “to provide an opportunity for the foreign women in the community to get to know one another better and to get social contacts at regular intervals. But it was also to provide opportunities for interested members to participate in social service work.”
Since the end of the Korean War, when communities of expatriates began making Korea their home, many of the social clubs organized by foreigners have been volunteering their time and money to help Korea’s less fortunate.
SIWA is one of the oldest and largest of these clubs in Korea, with more than 600 members.
Last November, the group hosted its annual “SIWA Bazaar and the Diplomatic Community,” in which almost all of the international women’s associations in Korea participated.
All the embassies and a few not-for-profit organizations were invited to sell products from their country. Proceeds went to charities. At the end of the event, SIWA had raised 240 million won to donate to 50 nonprofit organizations all over Korea.
The one-day event usually takes six months of planning. But throughout the year, the group handles requests from several dozen organizations.
The woman currently heading the welfare committee is Ms. Morrison. When she left the United States to follow her husband, whose job took him to Korea, she thought she was leaving behind a 25-year career of social work.
After joining Seoul International Women’s Association, she found herself conversing with Evelyne Fallows, president of the association last year. “The welfare committee chair is one of the most important jobs in SIWA,” she told her, “and you’re the perfect person for it.”
With Ms. Morrison’s background in social work and the efforts of women with diverse backgrounds and nationalities, the welfare committee at SIWA is thriving.
SIWA has long-term associates, but when an association becomes self-sufficient, the women’s group begins focusing on another group to help.
Often, it will watch where government aid goes before deciding which cause to support. For example, the government had begun sponsoring children’s services, so the committee thought that a need would develop elsewhere.
Research revealed that abandoned elderly were unable to receive government support. The government has programs to aid the elderly who don’t have children, but if their children are alive, senior citizens aren’t eligible for government aid even if their children can’t, or won’t, support them.
“There are so many, and they are so excluded from society,” Ms. Hahm says. So SIWA started a Golden Age program, through which it financially supports about 50 elderly people so that they can go to the doctor and buy food.
SIWA has also donated money to disadvantaged students after the crisis of the International Monetary Fund, to orphanages and facilities for the mentally and physically handicapped, and to people devastated by Typhoon Rusa in 2002 and Typhoon Maemi in 2003.
The committee sees rising divorce rates signaling a splintering of the middle class and a deterioration of a traditionally strong family culture. “More children are going to need help since the economic slump,” Ms. Hahm says.
SIWA is just one of the many expatriate clubs engaged in social work. Not too far away from the Seoul Club, on a different day, a dozen members of the American Women’s Club are at the Millennium Seoul Hilton hotel for a monthly committee meeting.
Afterward, Kathy Scalabre, the president of the the American Women’s Club, calls the group’s charity work “one of the most amazing parts of AWC.” One of the group’s objectives is to “raise and distribute funds for general welfare purposes, for the local Korean and American communities.”
In the past, the group has donated 3.5 million won to Sorok-do Volunteer Center, in South Jeolla province, to buy 10 wheelchairs for patients who suffer from leprosy, strokes and other degenerative diseases associated with aging.
It has also donated 5 million won to Guen Yuk Byung Jae Dan, a center for people with muscular dystrophy. It has given 2.2 million won to Buleumeujeunwha, a meals-on-wheels program, to order 40 20-kilogram bags of rice.
Last year, members “adopted” orphans and brought them a gift for the holidays. Members also help staff a secondhand store on the U.S. base in Yongsan, whose proceeds go to charities such as the Pearl Buck Foundation, Salvation Army and Ae Ran Won, a center for unwed mothers.
The members also organize Hello Korea, when volunteers teach English for a day in the countryside to underprivileged children. And they publish Arirang, a magazine dedicated to the arts, culture and travel. Again, proceeds go to charities.
In addition to all these events, the group holds a winter gala every year, its main fundraising event. It raises money for charity and it’s a way for many expatriates to end the year in style before returning to their home country for the holiday season.
The event drew 430 guests and raised 48 million won last year. The theme last year was a masked ball set in Venice, organized by Suzanne Salg. The only reason Ms. Salg decided to put her energy into the ball was because 100 percent of the proceeds go to charities, she said.
Elegant affairs like these are popular among foreign charities. The Dutch Club Hendrik Hamel is holding a ball April 24 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, which has already sold out. The group expects to raise 20 million won for charities yet to be named.
Also, the British Association of Seoul takes an active part in local charities with its annual Queen’s Ball, which will be held at the Hyatt on June 5.
At a party last year, which had the theme of Neverland, the association raised 80 million won, most of it going to Open Door Welfare to help build a home in Yangpyeong for abused children. The association has also helped raise money for washing machines and a staircase for the charity.
“Abused kids point to problems in Korean society, so showing them to foreigners is embarrassing, in a way,” says Hwang Chum-gon of Open Door Welfare. But his meetings with several members of the British Association made him realize that “these people don’t see them as Korean kids, but a child in need.”
For its 2004 fundraising events, the British Association has chosen three recipients: Open Door Welfare wants to create a therapy center in Yangpyong; Emmaus Center, in Gwangju, South Jeolla province, which is run by Father Noel O’Neill of Ireland, is planning to erect a new building for handicapped patients.
The Seton Sisters, a Catholic charity, have institutes all over Korea, but the two places the British Association is focusing on is the Margaret House, an after-school center for disadvantaged children, and Sunflower House, for teenage girls who have left their homes. The Sunflower House provides shelter and counseling for the girls to return to school or acquire vocational training so they can support themselves.
The welfare committee of the British Association of Seoul is run by Susie Reilly. “It’s really a privilege to be welcomed in by these not-for-profit [organizations] and to be able to help,” Reilly says. “There are two reasons to join welfare: give and take. You acclimate yourself to this society, and the events that raise money are fun.”
The past president of the association, Lynette Loizou, decided to join in order to participate in a life outside of pure socializing. “We’re giving something back to the Korea we live in and not just enjoying the best of society,” she says.
The Seoul Japan Club also says its members organize drives for local causes and have donated money or gathered clothing for orphans and the elderly.
As a result of helping out, these organizations are also fostering good relations between Koreans and the expatriate community. Hwang Chum-gon, of Open Door Welfare, says, “The way I see it, these foreigners are in Korea for just a short time. And as much as they have received, they want to give back.”
You Song-ja with Jeon Jin Sang, a Catholic organization that champions efforts to help youths and receives help from the Seoul International Women’s Association, points to what she sees as a love of fellow humankind.
In helping others, many members of these organizations find that they are also on the receiving end.
“AWC was a lifesaver for me,” says Ms. Salg of the American Women’s Club. “I am humbled by the women I meet. These are strong, intelligent, caring women who volunteer their time. They could be playing tennis every day. They could be working out. They could be taking a flower decorating class.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, but they chose to volunteer their time to support this organization that fosters friendship, and gives to the community and to charity. ... We don’t sit around and say, ‘What can we do?’ We say, ‘Where do I start?’”
INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY ASSOCIATIONS
Association de Francophones des Coree
American Women’s Club
British Association of Seoul
Busan International Women’s Association
Seoul International Women’s Association
Seoul Japan Club
Call your embassy for more information.
Koreans pitch in to build homes
It’s not just expatriates who help the unfortunate. Habitat for Humanity Korea is gearing up for the 2004 season. The not-for-profit organization, which helps build homes for low-income families, is planning to build 68 homes this year at a total budget of 4.5 billion won.
About 6,000 volunteers will be needed to fulfill this year’s goal. Although the group welcomes and is backed by many expatriates, Koreans make up the bulk of its volunteer workforce. Habitat for Humanity relies on fundraising and donations from construction companies for supplies, but it needs people to donate their labor.
Construction will begin in May with Saturday events. During this time, volunteers will lay the groundwork, such as framing, installing utilities and electricity. Efforts will kick into high gear during the Korea Blitz Build 2004, which will run Aug. 2 to 7, with about 2,000 volunteers expected that week.
The seven sites are Gangneung, Gangwon province; Gunsan, North Jeolla province; Daegu, North Gyeongsan province; Cheonan, Gyeonggi province; Jinju, South Gyeongsang province; Chuncheon, Gangwon province; and Taebaek, Gangwon province.
This year, Cheonan will again host the most number of homes. The homes were designed by Junglim Associates.
Fundraising events throughout the year include a fashion show on May 31 and talks are under way for a concert. Several years ago, Japanese and Korean students biked across Korea to increase awareness of Habitat for Humanity’s work and to raise money.
Habitat for Humanity International began in 1976 in the United States when Millard and Linda Fuller gathered supporters to discuss the possibility of partnership housing, “where those in need of adequate shelter would work side by side with volunteers to build simple, decent houses,” according to the Web site. Around the world, about one house goes up every 27 minutes.
Habitat for Humanity Korea began in 1992, but the foundation really began moving in 1994 with a project in Uijeongbu, north of Seoul, where three homes were built.
Since then, Habitat Korea has built more than 380 homes on the peninsula under the leadership of Chung Kun-mo, the first chairman of Habitat for Humanity Korea. The organization has also sent volunteers to other international sites.
One of the most celebrated Habitat events in Korea was when Mr. Fuller, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, his wife, Rosalyn, and former Philippines President Corazon Aquino visited a construction site. Then-Korean President Kim Dae-jung and his wife, Lee Hee-ho, also participated, along with other volunteers who built 136 homes.
For more information, go online at www.habitat.org or www.habitat.or.kr.
by Joe Yong-hee