Non-profit enjoys partnership with SeoulAccording to one recent count, there are about 70,000 expats living in Seoul. But despite the proliferation of clubs and online communities catering to their needs, wading through all the choices in search of the right information can still be a headache.
The recent partnership between the Seoul Help Center for Foreigners and Focus, a non-profit volunteer group with a 28-year history of helping expats, may provide visitors and resident foreigners alike with a dependable option ― including a 24 hours-a-day medical referral service (010-4769-8212 or 010-8750-8212) in English, staffed by Western-trained medical professionals.
A free service, it provides any caller, not just Focus members, with referrals. Ten English-speaking volunteers take turns referring callers to appropriate medical facilities, including professional counselors.
Together with the multilingual Korean staff, they also answer routine questions about daily life, offer advice to potential foreign investors and run a library replete with periodicals and Internet terminals.
“We usually receive about 60 to 70 phone calls per week,” said director Choi Byung-hoon. “Sometimes there are funny questions, such as, ‘Where can I find a size-10 shoe?’”
Both sides are working to ensure the success of the partnership, which is on a trial basis through next month. The city, which launched the Seoul Help Center in June 2003, found that it could benefit from the presence of foreign volunteers on staff, Mr. Choi said.
“There are lots of expat communities for promoting friendship among members in Korea,” he said. “But Focus was the one most similar to us”
Meanwhile, the expats with Focus stood to benefit from the Koreans’ expertise.
“For example, Focus didn’t have translation help. Korean staff at the center can help in finding information and translating in English,” said Bliss Burdett Pak, a Focus volunteer. “They will research and respond to questions within a day or two.”
“They were doing the same thing that we have been doing,” said Helen Brown, the Focus president. “So we decided to give it a try to see if we are alike.”
Since 1976, Focus has provided its member families with general information, starting with answers to common questions, like “Where I can find groceries, a driver’s manual or schools for my children?”
“Then we noticed that there was a pyramid of human needs, and medical is at the top,” said Ms. Burdett Pak. “It was important to answer medical questions, like ‘Where can I find a doctor or pharmacist who speaks English?’”
That is how Focus came to focus on providing a medical referral service and operating an English-language help line.
“We have researched and inspected hospitals and clinics in Seoul and established information on professional medical people including pediatricians and gynecologists who can provide English service,” Ms. Brown said.
Since the partnership with the Seoul Help Center, “it’s pretty much the same as what we have done so far,” Ms. Burdett said. “The only difference is that the city government provided cell phones so that the service is now enhanced.”
Focus volunteers seemed enthused about their new high-profile digs, sharing space with city staff on a ground-floor office beside City Hall. It’s a far cry from their small office in the back of a church in Hannam-dong, they say.
With its new home, Focus has disbanded as a non-profit dues-paying organization, according to the president.
In October, the board of directors and city officials will make a final decision on whether to continue their symbiotic relationship or to part. So far, at least, this two-way marriage between a longstanding expat organization and City Hall has been a happy trial; already, the integration of services has proven to be synergistic.
“Collaboration with the city has been great. I can grade them ‘A’ for their efforts,” said Ms. Burdett Pak.
by Song Hee-jung
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