We Start Villages boosts up poor children

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We Start Villages boosts up poor children

Kim Min-ju was born to an alcoholic father who drank six bottles of soju a day, and a mother who abandoned her when she was just 5 years old. When her father was jailed in 2006 for his involvement in an assault case, Kim and her younger brother were left with their grandparents, where they survived on a mere 71,000 won ($70) per month.

“Psychological tests showed she had a critical lack of self-esteem,” recalled Kim Eun-hee, the head of We Start Village in Sokcho, Gangwon, who first met the child in 2007.

At the time, Min-ju was seriously underweight at just 19 kilograms (42 pounds) and 120 centimeters (3 feet 9 inches) tall.

“Min-ju couldn’t even talk with other people while looking into their eyes,” the village head recalled.

But seven years later, Kim, now 13, weighs a healthy 39 kilograms and stands at 140 centimeters. She says she has regained her confidence thanks to therapy sessions provided by We Start Village. The project is part of a campaign by We Start, a civic organization aimed at helping children obtain proper education and medical care, with the aim of ultimately severing the intergenerational transfer of poverty.

We Start Villages have been established in areas where more than 200 children grow up living with low-income families, and provide family counseling, psychological and physical checkups, after-school study programs and nurseries, among other services.

The program has improved Min-ju’s life for the better, and her eyes light up as she talks about her performances as an electric guitarist in her local band and her friends.

“Coming to We Start Village, I’ve met a lot of friends,” Min-ju added, who asked that she be given an alternative name to protect her real identity. “My dream is to become a chef so that I can cook for the children here.”

We Start Village also helped Min-ju’s grandparents, who have long struggled to make ends meet, find new jobs. They now earn double their previous salary.

“Our goal is to help [young poor children] grow into decent members of society by supplying services tailored to their needs,” said Lee Bong-joo, the head of the working committee at We Start and a social welfare professor at Seoul National University.

“It stands out from other welfare businesses that stop at providing short-term living expenses,” Lee added. He emphasized that We Start is rising as the “new milestone” in domestic child welfare.

Established in 2004, making this year its 10th anniversary, We Start was incubated, in part, by the JoongAng Ilbo when the media company then shed light on the plight of underprivileged children in a heart-wrenching series of articles.

The news served as an informal call to action, and about 50 private organizations convened to lay groundwork for the founding of We Start.

So far, We Start has received funds worth 6.9 billion won ($6.8 million) and has supported 66,800 children. The number of regular individual donors is 4,682, and companies such as Samsung Electronics ($1.4 million), Kookmin Bank ($713,000), SK Telecom ($261,000) and Lotte Mart ($590,000) have also made handsome donations.

The JoongAng Media Network annually organizes a charity flea market, the WeAJa, and has so far collected $688,000, donating the entire sum to We Start.

“We Start raised me,” said Oh Su-jin, a sophomore studying child education and care at the Gangwon Provincial College in Gangneung, Gangwon.

After losing her father in a fire at age 7, she was sent to live with her grandparents in Cheolwon, Gangwon. There, she stayed home to look after her younger sibling and to help with household chores. She only resumed her education in the fourth grade when a We Start Village was established in her neighborhood.

“Along with my friends, I studied, ate snacks, rode around on Rollerblades, learned how to use a computer and visited museums for the very first time,” she reminisced. “Learning was one thing, but what I loved the most was that I had something to open my heart to.”


BY LEE SUNG-EUN, JEONG JONG-MOON [selee@joongang.co.kr]

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