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Free hugs and roses from Seoul Giving Club

A band of about 30 friends gathered in Hongdae children’s park on Saturday evening, ruminating over their home-made plinko machine.

The giant cardboard version of the fairground game was to be the centerpiece of Seoul Giving Club’s latest pay-it-forward adventure, but the funnel for the ball-drop was refusing to stay put. 
Seoul Giving Club volunteers (from left) Kim Na-yeon, Helen Kim and Kim Mi-young. (Seoul Giving Club)
Seoul Giving Club volunteers (from left) Kim Na-yeon, Helen Kim and Kim Mi-young. (Seoul Giving Club)

After a quick fix with some scotch tape, the organizers set out to encourage passers-by to drop a ping-pong ball through the device and win prizes.

“I think all of us appreciate the shock value that comes with this,” said club founder Matt Alesevich. “Many times when you see people giving away things for free on the street they always have some motive, but we are doing this for nothing.”

The English editor started the club after he tried giving out $1 bills to strangers on the streets of New York in 2010.

On coming to work in Korea, he gathered together a band of likeminded friends and started committing random acts of kindness on Seoul streets.

“Pay-it-forward projects are all about creating positive energy,” he explained. “Bad things happen and people feel sorry for themselves, but you can turn that negative energy around if you just refrain from wallowing.

“Everyone has their ups and downs. Seoul Giving Club is just one way to make people feel good about themselves.”

Group members dig into their own pockets to buy trinkets and pass them out to strangers to remind them that the world can be a warm and giving place.

The group has already handed out balloons, hand-warmers, teabags and cash at previous giveaways in Seoul, and was supplying a bumper load of heart-warming goodies on Saturday in its biggest event to date.

Some volunteers waving multi-lingual signs of invitation were initially met with puzzlement in the busy student area.

“Sometimes people are really confused at first,” said Erin Kelly, who teaches English near Jamsil in Seoul. “They ask: ‘What do you mean you are just going to give me this?’”

Edgar Ponce, a student from Guatemala currently studying at Seoul University, added: “When we tried giving out free money some people did not believe it at first and wouldn’t take it. Then they saw other people taking it and realized it was for real and everyone crowded around.”

Sure enough, after a little explanation and a glance to people who had already won prizes including balloon animals, a rose, 1,000 won note or a free hug, a line quickly formed to take a turn at dropping the ball.

“It is a very fun event for everyone. I have never seen anything like this before,” said 22-year-old economics student Kang Eun-bi after playing the game.

Receivers are encouraged to keep their spirit-lifting gift if they are having a bad day or otherwise pass them on to a loved one to show them that they care.

“Giving things like this will make everyone happy,” Art student Yin Su-a, 22, said. “I won a flower and I will keep it for myself!”

Jonathan Balkind, a Samsung intern from Scotland won a free hug.

He said: “I haven’t seen anything like this before but I have read a bit online about pay it forward schemes. This is a really nice idea, it seems like something I would like to get involved in myself.”

If anything, it seems that Alesevich has succeeded in spreading the love.

With some members soon to move on from jobs here, there are hopes of holding events in Nowon, northern Seoul and even in Shanghai. Alesevich recently got an email from someone planning to start a group in Wellington, New Zealand.

“It’s great that people have really warmed to the idea. I just hope it will continue after I leave Korea,” said Alesevich, who is set to leave the country this month to travel.

Helen Kim, who is set to take over the organization, added: “We will keep making the games using our own money to put a smile on stranger’s faces and spread the love.”

By Kirsty Taylor  (kirstyt@heraldcorp.com)
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