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After growing up on the streets, center founder feeds hungry seniors

In the basement of an old, unnamed building in central Seoul, about 70 seniors line up for free lunch. A man wearing a green apron brings meal to them one by one. This has been the daily routine for Kim Jong-eun, 78, president of Hangil Volunteer Community, for the past 10 years.

Kim, now a garment firm owner, was a street beggar himself following his blind mother in Buyeo, South Chungcheong Province.

“I still vividly remember the days my mom and I suffered from hunger on the streets. Have you ever experienced it? Nothing is more important than food when you are starving to death,” he said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

“I needed no other reason when I started this free meal service.” 

Kim Jong-eun distributes meals to the elderly on Oct. 21. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
Kim Jong-eun distributes meals to the elderly on Oct. 21. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
After years of life on street, Kim’s mother sent him to an orphanage so that he would not starve. At 11, he jumped on a train for Seoul in a pursuit of a better life, only to encounter a harsh reality.

“There was no place to stay when I arrived at Seoul Station,” he recalled. “I wandered around the station and slept in a public restroom for a year.”

A police officer, who had been watching Kim, bought him lunch and advised him start a new life in a new neighborhood. However, he continued to live in a restroom for another three years, even after moving to a new area.

One day he was caught stealing food at a local market.

“The owner beat me but I did not stop eating the bread. My mouth was bleeding. I could bear the pain but not the hunger,” said Kim.

Thanks to a restaurant owner who frequently watched him eat leftover food in front of her shop, he found a job at a clothing factory. At that time, working was impossible without having a financial guarantor.

Starting from a cleaning job, he slowly learned skills and became chief tailor at 18. Seven years later Kim himself took over the business.

Having a stable job and home, he did not have to starve anymore but he said he has never forgotten his unfortunate past.

In 1972, he started to distribute some pocket money or snacks to the elderly at a public park.

Initially his beneficiaries were only several but the number gradually increased to dozens and then to hundreds.

He was sometimes robbed by gangsters but some police officers volunteered to guard Kim when distributing free meal to the needy.

In 2003, he finally opened a small place in downtown Seoul where he and three like-minded colleagues have since been serving free lunch to poor seniors every day.

He also offers free breakfast to about 200 public sector laborers before they go to work each day.

“Some people wrongly think that I am extremely rich. That’s not true at all,” he said. Rather he is currently struggling with his troubled business.

His company, Young Fashion, was almost bankrupt in 2005 when someone ordered 30,000 jackets and then disappeared. He had to cover all the costs, which he is still paying back today.

Despite enormous debt and stress, the philanthropist did not stop the free meal service.

“My family almost begged me to cut back on the volunteer work. But I couldn’t.”

Profits from his business are still not stable and he has not been able to pay the rent and salaries for workers for months.

Kim is eligible to receive government subsidies for volunteer work but he does not.

“Volunteering with government funds or donations is not truly a service but is like being an ‘errand boy.’ Sharing something that you worked for, that is real service,” said Kim.

“I will keep the meal service as long as there is someone in need, even if it is only one person.”

By Lee Hyun-jeong  (rene@heraldcorp.com)
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