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Somewhere to stay at a dangerous age

Mother of many keeps open house at girls’ home in Seoul


Like any good mother Chyung Eun-deuk worries for her kids as they grow up and prepare to leave the nest.

“Just after 18 is an important and very dangerous age for girls,” she told The Korea Herald. “A girl has a lot of things to think about after school-graduating age.”

For example, will she be able to complete college, find a job and money to pay rent when moving out to live alone?

These common motherly concerns are multiplied for Chyung. She has 58 girls to care for, all of them looking to her as their sole protector.

The girls, aged from one to 18 years old, are the parentless residents of Seoul’s Sun Duk Won Girls’ home.

Chyung has been caring for girls like them at the Eungam-dong orphanage since 1983 through a deep sense of family commitment. Acting as a mother to the girls is also a tribute to her own blood relatives.

“My mom started the orphanage in 1962 because of my brother,” she explained. “He died of liver cancer while studying in the U.S. He was 25 years old.
Chyung Eun-deuk stands in the rooftop garden of Seoul’s Sun Duk Won Girls’ home. (Kirsty Taylor)
Chyung Eun-deuk stands in the rooftop garden of Seoul’s Sun Duk Won Girls’ home. (Kirsty Taylor)

“After my brother died, my mother went to a city hospital and saw many abandoned kids. She had just wanted to pick up one kid to take care of instead of my brother, but she couldn’t decide which one to take. She brought 25 kids home with her ― all girls!

“For almost one year she took care of those girls at our house, but as they grew, the house was too small, so she bought land and built the orphanage.”

But Chyung explained that there were many ways to make an “orphan.”

“About 10 percent of the kids are really orphans ― their parents are dead. But 90 percent were born into families where their mothers and fathers could not take care of them.

“Sometimes a girl staying here can go back to their parents, but until her safety is guaranteed she cannot go back.”

Since taking the helm at the orphanage she has done everything in her power to care for them ― giving up her job as Professor of Sociology at Seoul’s Gangnam University, and selling her house to build a bigger home for the girls.

The kids have comfortable, clean and bright living quarters where they eat, play and study when they are not attending local schools.

The government gives 100,000 won ($92) per month, intended to fully support each Sun Duk Won girl’s food, clothes, education and other activities until the age of 18. Private benefactors sponsor children by donating from 10,000 won to 100,000 won each month.

But Chyung explained money was always in short supply: “The government said that their funding should cover the girls 100 percent but it only covers 60 to 70 percent of their needs when you count everything together.

“Almost all the kids have a sponsor but they are not fully supported. It is good to have a little more money to spend on the girls but it is still not enough.”

Volunteers assist the orphanage’s 16 staff and two cooks, some coming to teach English, others coming to visit or cut the girls’ hair.

Since opening, 160 Sun Duk girls have been adopted in Korea and overseas. More than 450 girls gave moved on to live independently ― marrying to start their own families or holding jobs.

Chyung’s dedication has been recognized with a Hunjang awarded by the national government in 2000. The medal called the Suk Ryu Chang, is a mark highest national honors to recognize service to the country.

But she said she still has a lot of work to do to beat a path to help her girls move from the orphanage to normal life.

“If you come from an orphanage it is very hard to survive and grow up after that. I am always very concerned for the older girls here.”

The teenagers leaving school find there is no longer room for them at the only stable home they have ever known. The Government terminates regular financial aid when a child reaches 18, and there is currently no other aid for them to establish their footing in the wider community.

Girls leaving Sun Duk Won are currently given 5 million won start-up fund by the government. But Chyung points out this amount can barely cover the cost of finding a home to rent.

“If they have no other source of income, how can they start a life for themselves?” she asked.

“We expect to see four of five girls each year reaching the age of 18, the maximum age that Sun Duk Won can hold them, but in reality, there is no place for them to go, so we have to provide temporary quarters for these girls. I built a house next to the orphanage. There are eight of them living there now, but we need to help more girls as they get older.”

Chyung’s next goal is to raise funds to provide room and board for her girls aged over 18 for two or three more years while they train for jobs such as child care specialists, nurses or beauticians.

“They say that if you grow up in an orphanage it is not that bright a future,” she said “I want to give these girls courage and hope so they can show that this is not true.”

To make a donation or learn more about the orphanage, go to www.sundukhome.or.kr.

By Kirsty Taylor (kirstyt@heraldcorp.com)
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