Reaching out to unwed mothers

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Reaching out to unwed mothers

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Richard Boas, right, founder of the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network, looks at the child of a participant in a gathering of unwed mothers held in Guro-dong, southwestern Seoul on Monday. By Byun Sun-goo


Just five years ago, Richard Boas, founder of the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network, made his first trip to Korea, changing his perception of parenthood and adoption forever.

Back in Connecticut, Boas had set up a foundation to support families there who want to adopt but can’t afford to do so. The idea came from his experience with Esther, his youngest daughter, who was born in Korea and given up for adoption by her biological mother.

“We adopted Esther, who is now a very well-adjusted, happy 22-year-old American college student,” he said last week, during his eighth visit to Korea.

While raising Esther, Boas said that he became aware that there were many middle-income families in his area who couldn’t afford to adopt because it was so expensive.

Intending to promote international adoption and expand the foundation’s activities, Boas, a former ophthalmologist, arrived in Korea for the first time in 2005.

A visit during that trip to an unwed mothers’ facility in Daegu struck a chord with him.

“I stopped and began asking a lot of questions about why - if Korea is such a wealthy democracy, why isn’t it taking care of its children on its own?

“My daughter’s natural mother could have been any one of these mothers. And she was,” he said. “And I realized that I never validated my child’s natural mother, seeing her as a real flesh-and-blood human being who loved her child as much as I did. I felt terrible.”

That experience inspired Boas, two years later, to found the KUMSN, a rarity in a country with few support groups for unwed mothers.

The group has funded projects for similar local organizations such as Aerawon. According to data by the Korean Women’s Development Institute, another group to benefit from KUMSN support, 95.7 percent of pregnant unwed mothers in Korea get abortions. Of the unwed moms who decide to give birth, 68.3 percent give the babies up for adoption.

Addressing these statistics, Boas said, “Out of 100 pregnancies, only around four children are going to be delivered. That’s a low, low number. And really, only one child is going to be brought up by an unwed mom and the other three are going to be given up for adoption,” he said.

Because unwed mothers in the U.S. are able to receive more financial support for their children, only 2 percent of unwed moms there give up their children for adoption, Boas said. The single biggest factor in accommodating these unwed mothers is financial help.

“Along with financial support, issues such as job discrimination against unwed moms should be addressed while moms are also provided with job training, child care and also sex education, because many of these moms go on to repeat pregnancies,” Boas added.

After setting up the network, Boas started a fund back home in the U.S. that helps needy cancer patients and their families afford non-medical necessities during treatment. He was motivated to create this fund after a family friend named Fay passed away 12 years ago from breast cancer.

“[Fay] was poor and developed an advanced case of breast cancer. She couldn’t pay for her treatment and the hospital threatened her to make her pay. I remember being very angry and spoke to the hospital to get adjustments to her bills,” he said.

By creating the fund, Boas said he wanted to assist people in her position.

“Ideally, nobody would have to face the lack of dignity that my friend faced when she had a really bad disease.”

The fund provides financial assistance for everything from rent and home heating to buying wigs and funeral expenses.

Boas has passed on his philanthropic instincts to his children. His oldest daughter, who is a business consultant in New York, established the “Barefoot MBA” project, an organization that teaches business fundamentals to people in third world countries, with a friend.

Philanthropy is only meaningful when giving to a cause that truly has meaning, Boas said. “I think that the best form of philanthropy is when one feels in one’s soul that it is the right thing to do and supports the cause that one truly believes in.”


By Cho Jae-eun [jainnie@joongang.co.kr]
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