Charity struggles in effort to aid Amerasians
November 28, 2004
SEOUL — The third week in November was typical for Yi Kyoung-kyune, the man who runs the Pearl S. Buck International office in South Korea.
One day he took four pounds of rice and 100,000 won (about $100) to a mother and son in Itaewon. Another day, he took a call from a mother in Uijongbu who has a child with cerebral palsy and who needed help paying monthly bills. He only could afford to send 100,000 won toward her utility bills.
He also took a reporter to meet Kim Paul, a 17-year-old living with his grandmother, Kang Il-soon, in Dongdaemun.
“She feels bad to be a burden to Pearl Buck,” Yi said of Kang as they sat on a bedroom floor in her four-room apartment. “Her only wish is to see Paul grow up good.”
Pearl S. Buck International helps struggling children worldwide get more food, better health care and a chance at a stable education. The group was named after Buck, the Nobel Prize in literature winner who grew up in China and created the foundation in the mid-1960s to help Asian children who were not eligible for adoption.
Yi’s office is struggling to meet its mission to help Amerasians — children whose mothers are Korean and whose fathers are either American servicemembers or other foreign workers who once passed through South Korea. The mothers are almost always poor and poorly educated, Yi said.
“Some cannot even write their name,” he said. “They have no skills. They all have children.”
The fathers are almost always unknown, he said.
Seventeen-year-old Kim, a high school junior, doesn’t know his father’s name.
The teen doesn’t like to be interviewed or to have his picture taken. He’d rather be sending instant messages to friends and strangers in online chat rooms about music and break dancing. He’d rather be at his tae kwon do studio, where he’s earned his third belt and sometimes teaches when the instructor is on vacation.
But Kim’s grandmother wanted to talk about how Yi and the Pearl S. Buck Foundation have helped her family. She wanted to help Yi to solicit more support for families like hers from U.S. military members and anyone else willing to sponsor a child like Kim for about $25 a month.
The South Korean government once provided money toward the group’s mission. But a 1998 policy change put that money on a four-year countdown that since has run out, Yi said.
Now, Yi depends on individual donations, called sponsorships, and group donations of rice, money, clothes and school uniforms from U.S. military groups .
“We have 94 sponsors,” Yi said a couple of weeks ago. “But we have 206 children.”
The sponsorships don’t go directly to the families, but instead help pay to keep Yi’s office open so that he can organize larger fund-raising campaigns, dole out 100,000-won emergency vouchers and, on very good days, coordinate permanent adoptions.
A few U.S. military groups help Yi and the families each year. Volunteers at Osan Air Base throw an annual Christmas party that provides each child with three presents and gives them a chance to pick out anything they want from racks of thrift clothes.
The 524th Military Intelligence Battalion in Seoul directs an annual rice drive to coincide with Chusok, Korea’s harvest holiday. This year the soldiers collected 16,000 pounds of rice, said Chaplain Earl Vanderhoff, who helps run the drive.
“The battalion has really taken these children under their wing,” he said. “It’s a tragedy. These kids are growing up without fathers.”
The American Women’s Club at Yongsan Garrison and the American Forces Spouse Club both have donated money for school uniforms, Yi said.
But other help from servicemembers has stopped, he added. It’s hard to keep contacts with the U.S. military as servicemembers leave and incoming soldiers and airmen don’t have immediate ties with the group. Yi, who runs his office with one other employee, admits that he has a hard time keeping up with the changing faces and names.
Soldiers at Camp Casey once routinely collected $5,000 to $6,000 yearly. “They all stopped now,” Yi said. “I think it’s our fault.”
In late October, Yi sent a letter to Col. Timothy K. McNulty, the commander for Area II support activity. McNulty’s office confirmed the letter was received but did not say what response the colonel had.
“We are barely keeping our office,” Yi said. “We need to help these children.”
Yi has known Kim and his grandmother for 14 years. Kim’s mother left home when he was 1 month old, and no one knows whether she’s alive. Kang said she once was told the name of Kim’s father, but she didn’t have a written version and long has forgotten the English-sounding syllables.
Nearly all the furniture and clothes in Kang’s apartment were donated. The television and Kim’s computer were gifts as well, the former from a neighbor and the latter from Kim’s school. Kim’s tuition at the tae kwon do studio is free, though Kang scrapes together 30,000 won a month — about $30 — to keep up his membership.
Kang, 69, supports her family by collecting recyclables and cleaning homes.
“Grandmother works cleaning houses in the neighborhood,” Yi said outside the home, pointing to her rickshaw-style cleaning cart. “She can make about $20 or $30 a day.”
The family is Class I, a South Korean welfare classification that qualifies them for free medical care and a small monthly stipend. Kim must pay a school administrative fee of about 80,000 won (about $80) quarterly. His uniform was donated by the spouse’s club, a savings of about 120,000 won (abut $120) for a summer outfit and 150,000 won (about $150) for a winter one.
His bus fare to school still costs about 50,000 won (about $50) monthly.
When Kim graduates from high school, the Class I subsidy will cease, Yi said.
Kang has managed to keep a savings account for her grandson’s future. By his graduation, she expects to have saved 5 million won (about $5,000). That would pay for about one semester of college.
“Paul is quite exceptional,” Yi said. On average, the dropout rate is 17 percent for Amerasian students who reach middle school, he says. It’s then, Yi says, that teasing about racial differences becomes intense.
Kim was attacked in middle school, he said, where his darker face was the only different one from all his classmates. But the fight only spurred him to continue his tae kwon do lessons.
“He is skinny on the outside, but strong on the inside,” Kang said through an interpreter of her gangly but growing grandson.
Yi has stories of other children, besides Kim, that make him smile.
On a Sunday night about a month ago, Yi watched as a Korean couple went home with their newly adopted son, an 11-year-old Amerasian boy. The husband and wife are both doctors, and they’ve offered to send the boy to medical school if he wants. For now, they’re signing him up for piano lessons.
“We are so happy,” Yi said.
Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this article.
Pearl S. Buck
Click here to learn more about Pearl S. Buck International in Korea (their English-language page).
Click here for the Pearl S. Buck International home page
Click here to read a 1969 Stars and Stripes interview with Pearl S. Buck.