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Gift drive organizer wins Michael Simning Award

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Published : 2017-06-13 17:18
Updated : 2017-06-14 10:32

Sarah Elizabeth Hale has taken this year’s Michael Simning Community Builders Award in recognition of her efforts as president of the Adopt-a-Child for Christmas initiative.

The campaign, which began eight years ago, mobilizes the community to provide Christmas gifts to some of the 700 orphans in the Gwangju area. Last year, volunteers were able to buy, wrap and deliver presents, including padded vests and woolen-lined boots, to five local orphanages thanks to months of fundraising efforts spearheaded by Hale. 

Sarah Elizabeth Hale receives the Michael Simning Community Builder Award on June 3. (Courtesy of Gwangju International Center GIC Talk team)

Award organizer Chris Bleeker said that out of eight impressive nominees, Hale won for tirelessly pushing those in the local community to fundraise or volunteer their time for the city’s orphans, in addition to working as a Dongshin University professor.

“Sarah doesn’t give up; she keeps pushing herself as well as those around her,” Bleeker says. “She doesn’t think she does much, but we in the community know differently. She makes it evident how much the children mean to her, and how important this work is to her.”

Hale, an American expat, became involved with the Christmas program four years ago, soon after she started volunteering at Sungbin Girls Orphanage.

“I can’t really explain it. It’s just something that makes me happy,” she says of spending weekends crafting, playing puzzles and passing on English language skills to the young women there.

“Every other Saturday we put together activities at the orphanage and just try to get Koreans and expats to come and help and be regular figures so the kids can have some English experience and be exposed to the international community.

“Hanging out with the girls and fostering relationships with them is my favorite thing. I love walking in, having them know who I am and having our little jokes together.” 

Sarah Elizabeth Hale (right) stands with other volunteers at the Adopt-a-Child for Christmas booth during Gwangju International Community Day in October.

She will be spending ample time next month with Jieun, an orphan she mentors, after donating her prize money toward flights and a visa for the 17-year-old to visit Maine on her first international trip.

“She was just looking through pictures from my hometown on my phone one day and said she really wanted to go there,” Hale says. “I thought, ‘that could be cool. I’m going to be home for a month, I can probably organize that.'”

The pair will spend July lobster fishing, sight-seeing and taking an overnight trip to Vinalhaven Island after a successful GoFundMe campaign Hale set up raised enough to fund the planned activities.

“If I have a goal, I’ve never not reached it. Somebody in the community is always there to help out with either money or volunteering.”

The award was created by a group of Gwangju residents in memory of Michael Simning, a Canadian expat who initiated charitable causes in the city and started First Alleyway, a cafe and key meeting point for the city’s expat community. Simning died in 2014 at the age of 39. The award recognizes people who have started ventures that bring the local foreign and Korean community together.

Three others were shortlisted for the award: Lisa Crone, Rob Smith and Dr. Soumitra Kundu. Previous winners include Sungbin volunteers Al Barnum, Jeff Hamilton and Kelly Palmer Kim for their work in creating and running Global Families of Gwangju.

Hale remembers Simning for his kindness and cherishes the important advice he left her with, “If you’re into something and it’s not there, make it; people will be interested in it and they will support you if you reach out.”

By Aparna Balakumar (a.balakumar@heraldcorp.com)