Volunteer honored for 15 years of service overseas

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Volunteer honored for 15 years of service overseas

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Kim Hye-sim lives in Kaphunga, Swaziland, in Africa, where she runs a community health center for area residents. By Cho Yong-chul

Fifteen years ago, Kim Hye-sim, 64, gave up a secure position as a university professor to volunteer in Africa. On Nov. 25, she was honored with a presidential award for her volunteer service overseas.

Kim, who studied pharmacology at Chung-Ang University, graduating in 1968, has had an unusual life. But it didn’t start that way. Kim grew up in a typical mid dleclass family with parents who ran a gas station. She went to graduate school and was on her way to a career as a pharmacist.

But when she was in her second year of graduate school, her brother died in an accident at the station, forcing her to re-evaluate her life. She decided to shift her studies to Buddhism and joined a Won Buddhist temple.

Then, when Kim was studying to get her doctoral degree, she read a newspaper article about Sorok Island, a leper colony that at the time was shut off from the rest of the country. (The island was opened again in September 2007.) The article was about the shortage of medical personnel on the island, and in the summer of 1976 she decided to go there to volunteer. She had planned to stay for a couple of months, but kept extending her stay.

“The place was in desperate need of help,” Kim said.

She was there for eight years, although she had to leave periodically because of her work with the temple.

Eventually, the temple asked her to serve as a professor of pharmacology at the newly established Wonkwang University.

In 1995, she experienced another life-changing event when she went to Africa as part of a volunteer program.

When she arrived, she knew she had found her next calling, and the following year she gave up her teaching position to volunteer in Africa.

She was in South Africa for the first three years. She has been in Swaziland — a monarchy located between South Africa and Mozambique — for the past 12 years.

“Africa was in a state of devastation,” Kim said. “But the children there were clean and pure. And I thought that things could change in Africa if the children were given an education.”

Another major obstacle Kim faces is AIDS, which affects approximately 60 percent of the adult population there, and widespread polygamy worsens the situation, Kim said.

When she arrived in Africa, her first project involved the construction of a heath and education center.

Not many children visited the place at first, Kim said. To entice the young people in her area, she showed movies and provided snacks. She also taught AIDS education classes for 30 minutes at the end of the day. Eventually, people started to arrive.

“Now we are like a family,” Kim said. “No matter what happens, people come to see me.”

Kim also established a health center in Kaphunga, which is 1,100 meters (3,609 feet) above sea level. She gets around 50 to 60 visitors a day.

The center is open to everyone, but she focuses her efforts on women, who struggle with illiteracy, poverty and discrimination.

“The illiteracy rate among African women is high,” Kim said. “Kaphunga is no exception. Women have difficult lives raising children in poverty.”

Kim established a woman’s development center that teaches specific skills to enable women to live on their own. In one project, the women made and sold school uniforms. The profits went to the women.

“Their bright smiles are unforgettable,” Kim recalled. “Now they have work and hope. I can see their life changing gradually.”

Kim also travels to other villages to practice medicine.

“I’ve lived in Africa for 15 years, but my contribution is small compared to what I have received,” Kim said.
“My life is much richer because of the people here,” Kim said.


By Baik Sung-ho [estyle@joongang.co.kr]

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