Married couple’s ministry brings hope to D.C. kids

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Married couple’s ministry brings hope to D.C. kids

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Steven and Mary Park’s families came to the United States from Korea when they were children. Today the two run an acclaimed mentoring center for underserved kids in one of Washington, D.C.’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods. By Choi Sang-yeon


WASHINGTON - Hearing a gunshot is not as rare as it should be in historic Anacostia, a neighborhood in Washington, D.C. known for its high violent crime rate. With average annual income of $8,000 (9.364 million won) per family, Anacostia’s population is 98 percent African-American and 90 percent single-parent households. The college acceptance rate is below 2 percent.

Steven and Mary Park, a Korean-American couple, have worked to improve the lives of children in the neighborhood for 15 years. Steven, 39, has bachelor’s degrees in English and communications from Boston University, while his wife Mary, 34, has a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Columbia University. Steven came to the United States with his family as an immigrant when he was 7 years old, and Mary’s family arrived when she was 6.

During his college years Steven had the chance to help his father, who owned a taekwondo studio in Anacostia. Today, he looks back on that time in his life and said he realizes how selfish he had been. The 1990s were the peak of poverty and violent crime in Anacostia, and abandoned children were neither fed nor clothed properly, Steven said. They were illiterate even with an elementary school education. Steven said those days caused him to reflect on the values of love and mercy.

He had planned to become a journalist, but after seeing the realities of Anacostia, Steven established Little Lights, a philanthropic urban ministry committed to supporting children, after he graduated in 1995. Little Lights offers one-on-one mentoring to around 100 children at a time. Thousands between the ages of 5 and 13 have now gone through the program. Except for Steven and Mary’s children Kayla, 6, and Dylan, 4, all the Little Lights children are African-American.

“About two years ago, when Little Lights closed for a while for spring break, a 5-year-old boy died in front of his house because a whistle got caught in his throat. At that time, his dad fled their home and his mom was arrested for possession and use of illegal drugs. There was no one taking care of that boy,” Steven said in an interview conducted on Dec. 27 at Little Lights. Though the group was officially closed for winter break, three boys and girls still remained.

Mary had been working as a college counselor when she met Steven. “It was the first time I met a Korean-American who practiced the principles of love and mercy in his real life,” she recalled. To Mary, the conditions in Anacostia that Little Lights dealt with came as a shock. As soon as she received her graduate degree, Mary started volunteering there. Three years later, in 2001, the two got married.

The couple said their parents were their biggest supporters of their philanthropic work.

Last August, one of the staff members at Little Lights was shot three times while walking on the street in a random act of violence. Though the staff member survived, Steven said that particular incident exemplified the importance of the work done at Little Lights.

Mary confessed that the family did have to endure hardships to improve their community. “Just recently, we had to help clean up an apartment where the family of one of our students had been fighting with knives, staining it with blood.”

When asked whether they have plans to look for more stable jobs, the couple answered that it is a blessing for them to be able to help children in Anacostia realize their inner potential.

Seeing abandoned kids enter college thanks to their small efforts, the couple said, helps them forget the difficulties they face every day. The two explained that after-school education for underprivileged children eventually leads to better living standards.

Currently there are about 100 volunteers and professional staff at Little Lights, which the Parks have built from scratch.

Last April, Little Lights won the Arnold Keller Jr. Award, which is given annually by the Capitol Hill Community Foundation to a notable organization devoted to the betterment of public society.


By Choi Sang-yeon [enational@joongang.co.kr]

Related Korean Article

재미동포 스티븐 박·메리


미국 워싱턴DC 남동쪽 아나코스티아 지역은 아직도 가끔 밤에 총소리가 들리는 빈민가다. 가구당 연간 소득이 8000달러(약 940만원)에 못 미친다. 주민 98%가 흑인이며 90% 이상은 편부모 가정이다. 이곳에서 태어난 사람들은 어릴 때부터 마약과 범죄에 빠져든다. 대학 진학률은 2%도 되지 않는다.

이곳에서 빈곤 아동을 대상으로 15년째 봉사 활동을 계속하는 엘리트 부부가 있다. 한국말로는 의사소통이 힘든 1.5세 재미동포다. 남편 스티븐 박(39·사진 오른쪽)은 보스턴대 영문학·방송학을 전공했고, 부인 메리(34·왼쪽)는 컬럼비아대에서 상담심리학 석사를 땄다. 스티븐은 7살, 메리는 6살 때 가족과 함께 각각 텍사스와 뉴욕으로 이민 왔다.

저널리스트를 꿈꾸던 스티븐은 대학 재학 중 이 지역 인근에서 태권도장을 운영하는 아버지 일을 돕다가 생각이 바뀌었다. 빈곤 어린이의 비참한 생활상을 지켜보며 자신이 얼마나 이기적 삶을 살았는지 돌아봤다. 사랑의 의미와 베푸는 삶을 되새겼다. 버려진 아이들은 먹지 못했고, 입을 옷이 없었다. 초등학교를 졸업해도 글을 못 읽었다. 그는 대학을 마친 뒤인 1995년 자선 방과후 교육기관인 ‘리틀 라이츠’(Little Lights)를 만들었다. 이곳은 지역 소외계층 어린이의 안식처가 됐다. 5~13세 어린이 100명 정도가 1대1 멘토링 등의 보살핌을 받는다. 수천 명이 이곳을 거쳐갔다. 이들 부부의 딸 케일라(6)와 아들 딜런(4)을 빼면 모두가 흑인 아이들이다.


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