Where Are You, Christmas?


December 19, 2012 by travelinggrits

One of my first volunteer experiences during my undergraduate career was a spring cookout at the Babcock Center, an organization that provides housing and support for developmentally disabled adults. The service was simple: lifting the spirits of the center’s residents with an afternoon of friendship and fun. But to this day, I can remember feeling buoyed up myself, riding on a bubbly, warm high as I played cornhole and served hamburgers.

The feeling returned this past weekend as a volunteer at a holiday party for Samsungwon, an orphanage located in my homestay city of Gumi.

Forget the preconceptions you have about orphanages. Trust me, I had them too, before I learned about Samsungwon and KKOOM, an organization started by a former Fulbright ETA to improve the quality of life for children staying at Korean orphanages.

This information, shared with me by the KKOOM director, is a good summary:

Samsungwon was founded in 1960 in Daegu, South Korea to take care of children without homes or parents. In 1980, the orphanage moved about 20 miles to its present location in Gumi. Samsungwon has no financial or other affiliation with the large Korean company, Samsung Electronics.

Currently, the orphanage is home to about 80 children, aged 20 months to 20 years. The children are cared for by 24-hour live-in caretakers, who they call “mom” or “aunt.” Each “mom” is responsible for eight to fourteen children, who live in single-sex “houses.”

None of the children who live at Samsungwon are eligible for adoption. The orphanage has maintained a long standing policy of preferring to raise the children in their permanent “houses” at Samsungwon, as opposed to sending them to other houses via domestic or international adoption routes. Additionally, most of the children at Samsungwon have parents who maintain legal parental rights. Some of the parents remain in contact with their kids, but many do not.

Each “house” consists of four bedrooms, a bathroom, a common room, and an enclosed porch that has a washing machine and a refrigerator. Every house also has one TV and computers in most of the bedroom. The children share rooms with up to 4 other children, depending on age, sleeping on blankets on the heated floors, which is typical of traditional Korean culture, or more recently–bunk beds. Many Koreans are surprised, upon visiting Samsungwon, that the houses closely resemble the apartments of ordinary Korean families. Samsungwon prides itself on its familial house-structure, which differs from many orphanages in Korea that raise children in age-segregated rooms and/or buildings.

Samsungwon receives most of its annual funding from the provincial government. This money primarily goes to provide the children with necessities and to cover operational expenses. The government covers also basic medical costs for the kids. The orphanage receives some support from Korean nationals, which helps pay for some of the children’s supplemental educational fees, enabling them, in some cases, to take piano lessons, art class, and Taekwondo.

After the children turn 18, they must leave the orphanage, unless they are college students, in which case they can stay until they graduate. After leaving the orphanage, most get jobs in and around Gumi, where they live in dormitory housing provided by their companies for a small fee. Many of the grown-up children from Samsungwon work in factories or offices that support the auto and electronics industries.

Even after the children leave Samsungwon, many maintain close ties and visit frequently. Twice a year, when Korea celebrates its major holidays, Korean Thanksgiving in the fall and Lunar New Year in the winter, some of the grown-up children return to Samsungwon with their families. Korean holidays are family affairs, just as they are here, and Samsungwon is no different. The entire giant family celebrates with traditional food, games, and other customs.

KKOOM (Korean Kids and Orphanage Outreach Mission) has supported Samsungwon since 2007 by providing extracurricular educational activities and events for the children. KKOOM has also helped meet some of the physical needs of the children at Samsungwon by purchasing clothing, furniture, strollers, and other living necessities on a supplemental, as-needed basis. KKOOM is a US-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Does this overview give you a positive vibe about the children’s experience at Samsungwon? It should. One of KKOOM’s biggest events is the annual holiday party, during which Fulbright ETAs from across the country converge on the establishment to bring Christmas cheer to the children there. And while I was there, I witnessed the family camaraderie of each house, from teens taking care of toddlers to everyone pitching in a hand to complete chores.

As a volunteer, I agreed to purchase Christmas gifts for three children at the orphanage. I asked family back home to donate to KKOOM in lieu of a gift exchange since I’m not returning to the States for the holiday. I also sent a copy of a donation request letter to my colleagues using the school messaging server. I didn’t necessarily want to ask for money; I just wanted others to know that I was giving back to the community of which I have become a part. But before the day was out, envelopes began appearing on my desk. At the end of the week, my vice-principal even expressed concern that I had not collected enough money, and I reassured him that it was more than enough.

Saturday, as I walked through the orphanage entranceway loaded down with gift bags, I was excited about the events to come but admittedly nervous about connecting well with the children. But this feeling soon dissipated as the afternoon progressed. My primary purpose was not necessarily to teach English, but just be a positive participant in the lives of these children. At my school, where I have been requested not to speak to students in Korean, I sometimes feel invisible restraint in my conversation. But here, I felt free to laugh and play in whatever language was comfortable.

Several volunteers were assigned to each house to usher the children through a whirlwind of activities. I snapped into my camp counselor personality of days past, eliciting giggles of admiration (or amusement) from my girls. We played one of my favorite icebreakers, and I encouraged them to build house pride with a team cheer. I nicknamed the girl playing tunes from her phone “DJ” and told her she was responsible for keeping the music hoppin’.

P1020406P1020379After some introductory games and songs, each house participated in a series of contests, including door decoration and gingerbread house construction. The girls laid into each task with diligent concentration. The door transformed into a Christmas tree made out of cutouts of their hands. The “snack house,” as it was called, became a residence elegantly decorated in all manner of sweet treats.

As they sat on the floor, bent over their work, I casually reminded the girls that our last event was a fashion competition using recyclable materials to construct a costume for a Christmas character. Their reaction reminded me of the scene from Toy Story with the alien toys in the “claw” machine (“you have been choooossseeeeeennnnnn”); I suddenly had a roomful of eyes locked on me, accompanied by a murmur of “Christinaaaaaaa……”

So I acquiesced to their unanimous vote without protest. I allowed my legs to be swaddled in toilet paper, my waist taped with a pleated newspaper skirt, my arms adorned with mittens and silver aluminum foil bangles. The intended look was “Santa girl,” but the foil glasses seemed to be of a more “Where’s Waldo?”-like quality.


I was having the time of my life.

The icing on the cake: my house came in first place overall for the entries in the competitions, including my own runway walk. And just by coincidence, two of the recipients of my gifts were my own girls.

Our last event of the night was a trip to the noraebang, or a karaoke room, a pastime popular with students and adults alike. I am a little embarrassed to reveal that, somehow, I have not had this experience in my nearly five-month stay in Korea. It was a pleasant end to the evening, as my girls even gave the other volunteers and me the microphone to belt out some Beyonce and Backstreet Boys.

I returned the next day, and it seemed that I picked up right where I left off, even bonding with more of the elementary school girls than the day before. When I offered to do face paint, they grabbed my hands and took creative license with the canvas before them. They screamed with delight when I played Halli Galli, the Korean speed card game. They offered me sweets from their stores collected from the day before until I was on a mild sugar high.

At the end of the day, I eschewed a bus ride in favor of a long stroll in the glorious sunlight. It had been a long weekend, but nothing could wipe the smile off my face. And that was the true spirit of Christmas.


3 thoughts on “Where Are You, Christmas?

  1. Aimee Jachym says:

    Thank you for sharing your perspective about the KKOOM Party. I’m glad you had a great time!

  2. Don Simmons says:

    Santa Girl???? I was thinking more along the lines of Merry Christinamas! Also please tell me there is a high school in Gumi and the teams are called Bears! We enjoy your blogs so much. Merry Christmas.

  3. […] Blog by Christina Galardi. I am teaching at a co-ed middle school in Gumi, South Korea. After the Christmas party last December, I have been coming back every week to spend more time with the students at […]

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