For 14 years, Lee Young-soo has brightened the futures of more than 500 people on the margins of society by providing boiler engineering classes.
The 57-year-old started his school in 1998 when the Asian economic crisis deprived hundreds of thousands of people of their jobs, homes and dreams. He trained those victims of the recession with skills to work themselves out of poverty.
“I saw many people losing their jobs and becoming hopeless. I thought teaching people skills would be much more meaningful than just making some donations,” Lee said. “Once you acquire skills, they will never run out of you. They become valuable assets.”
Lee is one of the few government-designated boiler engineering masters who can install and repair boilers.
Boilers are now commonly used for household heating, but 30 years ago when he worked as a disc jockey, boilers were rare.
“I didn’t even know what boilers were and what they were used for because they were only used by wealthy families,” Lee said.
“One winter night, I went out to get new records for my music collection and I found myself drawn to the flashing lights across the street where a man was making a boiler.”
Lee instantly became interested in how boilers work and spent 30,000 won, which was a large sum of money back then, to purchase a broken boiler. He dissected and studied how boilers work, and a year later he opened his own boiler installation shop.
“At first, I had no work. Who would trust a guy in his 20s to fix their expensive boilers?” Lee laughed. “I started out by giving free maintenance services for people’s boilers around the neighborhood and a year later, I was being recognized as their boiler man through word of mouth.”
For Lee, visiting houses around the neighborhood and taking a look at their boilers not only allowed him to learn more about boilers, but the experience also made him realize the importance of helping others in need.
Whether it was summer or winter, people needed Lee’s help. During the rainy season in summer, he would visit flooded districts and repair people’s boilers for free. During winter, he would fix boilers that many underprivileged people depended on.
For the recognition of Lee’s good work, he was awarded 10 million won ($11,263) during the National Volunteer Festival in 1998. With this prize money and the help of Sungdong-gu office, Lee decided to start his boiler school. This year, President Lee Myung-bak awarded him the Civil Merit award in July.
Lee admits 15 to 30 students per semester where they learn skills to acquire a boiler engineering license.
Lee Young-soo grabs a boiler pipe. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
“I remember one student who was a taxi driver in his late 50s. After he graduated, he started a boiler installation shop. He is now in his 70s, still working as a boiler engineer,” Lee said. “Hearing about my students doing such a great job pays off all the hardships that I went through.”
The boiler school has come a long way since its establishment, yet Lee said he sees a rocky road ahead as he enrolls students in its 28th semester. He moved his school in March to a damp 99-square-meter basement located in northern Seoul. This was the third move since 1998.
With the soaring rent and material costs, Lee had to cut classes from six days to four days per week. Having a decent and stable place to teach students has long been his dream.
Yet, Lee refuses to receive help from the local government because this would stop Lee from enrolling students outside his district.
“The opportunities to learn skills should be given to all. I get students from all over the country,” Lee said. “The only thing I want is to get a place with low rent so that I can give classes six days a week just like I did before.”
Since the 14th semester, Lee has been running his school with his own money and some help from private companies.
“Boiler companies such as Rinnai Korea and Kiturami Boiler have been providing us with boilers for our students to practice their skills,” Lee said. “I greatly appreciate their help.”
Lee thinks what he did so far could not be achieved without the help of his family, students and those who supported him.
“When I was told to move out of the place where I started my school, I was devastated but my students started doing some fundraising. We also received help from Rinnai Korea who donated a large sum of money,” Lee said. “With their help, I was able to continue doing what I’ve been doing.”
The boiler school has been highly popular, getting hundreds of applicants each semester. Lee said he has very specific criteria through which he admits students into his school. Students must be willing to pay tuition and spend at least 50 hours with Lee in volunteer work. A strong determination to learn is another important key that he looks for in students.
“I don’t give free classes. They pay 27,000 won, which for a lot of them is a large sum of money. I do this to motivate them and make sure that they are paying to learn valuable skills,” Lee said. “They also have to agree that they will spend 50 hours or so with me to do volunteer work.”
Students aged 17 to 60 spend time volunteering because for Lee, teaching his students the importance of helping others is as vital as teaching skills that are needed for them to be boiler engineers.
“I’ve been getting more younger and highly educated applicants these days and this makes me worried because it indicates that people are having a hard time finding jobs,” Lee said.
“I hope that I can continue giving people hope and if I helped them keep on dreaming, that is all I’ve ever wanted in my life.”
By Lee Hee-su (firstname.lastname@example.org