Labors of love seen all over the country

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Labors of love seen all over the country

The concept of volunteer work was once unfamiliar to Koreans. But times have changed, and more people are finding pleasure in helping those who need it most.
Here are stories of such volunteers around the country, some of whom have been volunteering for more than a decade.
Volunteering isn’t just for the wealthy or those with nothing better to do. These people are just like everyone else, but what makes them different is that they’re willing to make time for the needy. It does not take a lot of effort to volunteer, once you have the desire to help others.


Lee Gap-jong: Known as Mr. Scissorhands

For Lee Gap-jong, a barber in Busan, the most precious thing of all is health. “I’m happiest when I give haircuts to the needy, and if I become ill, I can’t do that anymore,” said Mr. Lee, with a smile.
Mr. Lee hasn’t had a day off in 16 years. Every Wednesday, when his barbershop closes, he visits group homes to help the elderly who live alone and teenagers without parents. No wonder people call him “the Scissorhands of Love.”
It was early 1989 when Mr. Lee started volunteering, as soon as he had enough money to live on as a barber.
“Though I was born in a small town in the mountains and barely got what you can call an education, I felt the urge to do something for the needy,” Mr. Lee said.
He first started visiting nursing homes with gifts, but then it occurred to him that his expertise in haircutting could be of use. He began cutting hair for many people daily. Blisters would form on his hands, but that didn’t stop Mr. Lee. “The moment when the people tell me ‘thank you’ is when I forget all about how tired I am,” Mr. Lee said.
Mr. Lee has given haircuts to more than 20,000 people in need. His wife did not welcome her husband’s volunteer work at first, but now she is one of his biggest supporters.
“As long as my hands are strong enough to hold scissors, I’ll keep doing this,” Mr. Lee said.

Won Jong-yeon: Going where she’s needed

In this institution called Flower Village in Cheongju, North Chungcheong province, 18 mentally challenged people live happily together. They’re the happiest on Wednesdays, when the members of a volunteer group from the Cheongju Red Cross pay a visit.
One of the programs includes a cooking class, which has been going on since 2002, conducted by Won Jong-yeon, 47, who’s always wearing her yellow vest as a volunteer. In a recent session, the residents made tteokbokgi, spicy rice cakes with pepper paste, and jjinppang, steamed buns, for the first time. Though the food did not look picture-perfect, they all had a good time, laughing and feeling a sense of achievement.
Flower Village is not the only place Ms. Won visits. From Hyehwa School for the mentally disabled to Areum Village for the elderly, Ms. Won makes sure that she takes care of almost every nursing and group home and in the region.
She also wears her yellow vest when she visits neighboring cities in Gyeongsang and Gangwon provinces after natural disasters such as a flood. “Volunteer work has become a goal as well as part of my faith,” Ms. Won said.
Whenever she puts on her vest, she feels empowered. “Even when my husband’s business went bankrupt in the 1997 economic crisis, I overcame the pain by working as a volunteer in this yellow vest,” Ms. Won said, smiling.
What encourages Ms. Won the most is her husband telling her, “Maybe things are going well for me thanks to you, because you are always working so hard for good causes.”

Gwon Gyeong-eop: Soup’s on for elderly

At this temporary building in Busan around 11 a.m., elderly people gather in twos and threes. By the time 100 have shown up, the door opens, letting out the tantalizing smell of hot soup.
In the kitchen, Gwon Gyeong-eop, 52, a poet and mountain climber, has been cooking for free for the elderly, along with other volunteers.
It was April 1989 when Mr. Gwon saw a group of the elderly skipping their meals at a theme park, which inspired his volunteer work. He opened a soup restaurant to support himself while he wrote his poems. From then on, Mr. Gwon has been cooking for the elderly.
Word of mouth brought more and more people to Mr. Gwon’s soup kitchen, until he was preparing more than 100 bowls for each meal, up from 50 bowls a day.
In 1993, he received support from the Busan city government, which gave him space for his soup kitchen. But when his restaurant went bankrupt seven years ago, Mr. Gwon could not scrounge up the 100,000 won ($90) he needed daily to feed the elderly.
“Thinking about the elderly, I could not even sleep at night,” Mr. Gwon recalled. “But I just could not stop.” With his wife, a teacher, Mr. Gwon went into debt to keep up his volunteer work. He also had a group of more than 100 donors who each sent 10,000 won every month.
Now he’s focusing on the future. His plans include expanding his soup kitchen and opening a second one in another part of town.

Ttajamo: Online group draws young workers

Yeongsan’s House, home to more than 40 seriously mentally disabled people in Iksan, North Jeolla province, recently welcomed a visit from young volunteers. Together, the residents and volunteers played basketball and hide-and-seek.
Park Sang-hoon, 23, a volunteer, said, “My friends tried to talk me into going on a picnic, but I felt it’d be better to be in a place where people need me. That’s why I’m here today.”
The young volunteers belong to an online group called Ttajamo, an abbreviation of a Korean phrase meaning “a group of warm-hearted volunteers.” Their Web site is at
Established in December 2000 by Park Seong-bok, an office worker, Ttajamo started with five members who wanted to volunteer together.
The group now has more than 15,000 members nationwide, mostly in their 20s and the 30s. In March 2001, the group became famous after it was publicized by a Web site server company, which resulted in a tremendous growth in membership.
One or two times a year, the group members hold a market or a charity party to raise funds. Last year, members in Iksan gave heaters to 10 teenagers without parents.
Now that most members are office workers and college students, the group performs its volunteer work on weekends. On weekdays, they go online to discuss how to help more people.

‘Angel Movement’ breaks new ground

On a spring day on a hill in Dongducheon in Gyeonggi province, six men, whose ages range from their 20s to their 40s, were busy with picks and shovels. Taking away bushes and evening out the land, the men from “Angel Movement of Hope,” were working hard, the sweat streaming down their faces. The reason for their labor? Building a house for the homeless.
The movement, which has more than 2,100 members nationwide, petitions the government for permission to build houses for anyone in need, from teenagers without parents to the elderly who live alone. The members of the movement came up with the novel idea while mulling over a plan to make the most of the donated land. The members raise funds as well as get corporate sponsors.
Baek Du-won, secretary general for the group, said, “We’re trying to create a new type of space for a community like a family, initiated by volunteering citizens.”
Several needy people in Dongducheon will live in the first completed house for two to four years, during which they’ll receive help to stand on their own. Once they become independent, they will leave to make room for the next round of people.
Starting in 2002 with 21 members, the movement is continually growing. Last year, members held a fund-raising marathon, and this year, they will hold a concert on Oct. 4, which the group has dubbed “Angel Day.” The group always welcomes more volunteers. For more information, call (031) 862-7004.

Jeong Jang-ro: Once poor, but rich in heart

For the last 17 years, Jeong Jang-ro, 70, has been faithfully visiting a social welfare facility, called Yangji House of Love, after work, rain or shine. Even though he runs an oriental medicine practice in Jihyeon village in South Chungcheong province, Mr. Jeong said, “I just cannot miss a single day. I’m so concerned about the health of the elderly and the disabled.”
When Mr. Jeong arrives at the facility, he first knocks on the 13 doors and receives a hearty welcome. Mr. Jeong then asks all of them how they are doing and checks the electrical facilities and sewage system. He even turns on every TV set to make sure they’re all working.
Mr. Jeong established this home in 1988, taking 20 million won ($17,240) out of his own pocket. It now shelters 10 people over the age of 70 and two disabled people. The facility has a backyard so that residents can grow vegetables in their free time.
What motivates Mr. Jeong is his own childhood, which was spent in destitution. “I had to sleep with my parents and four brothers and sisters all crammed in one small room, living on sweet potatoes. I was only a teenager, but old enough to feel the dire need for money,” he said.
After passing the exam for oriental medicine practitioners, Mr. Jeong has been trying to keep others from suffering. Since 1991, Mr. Jeong has donated daily necessities worth 7 million won to four nursing homes in Chungcheong province, and since 2001, he has been supporting 65 poor people in Seocheon, Chungcheong province.

by Ahn Nam-young, Kim Guan-jong, Kim Bang-hyeon, Jang Dae-suk, Jeon Ick-jin
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