Eight years ago I was sitting at home in Wisconsin, reading a friend's blog about volunteering at an orphanage in Gumi, South Korea. Never could I have imagined that this very orphanage would become an integral part of my life, a place I felt at home, made friends and was able to watch kids mature and grow into young adults. Here I am eight years later, five Christmas parties under my belt and countless memories made. My winding up at this orphanage was not so much coincidence as it was due 100% to my reading the aforementioned blog, but the pure fact that I was placed in Gumi was happen chance. Was it really coincidence though? I think not, my landing in Gumi was an extremely pivotal moment in my life. Not only did it lead me to these children, but also best friends, love for a new profession and ultimately hundreds of more experiences. Back to the kids though, since that's what this one's all about.
When I heard that the annual KKOOM Christmas party planning was under way I made sure to get in touch with Grace, the Chief Administrator, angel in disguise, hard worker, cheer-leader, and more. I'm not sure who was more excited, her for a veteran set of hands at the party, or myself on being able to once again attend and see how the kids I met years ago had grown. As I was still transitioning from my random work in Changwon to my new position in Daegu, I had the week leading up to the party off and was thus able to travel to Gumi and help Grace with some of the preparations. We spent the afternoon wrapping a few remaining presents and preparing goodie-bags of treats for the party. Grace came from the US with three large pieces of luggage and I'd be surprised if even half of one held her personal possessions. She came prepared with ginger bread house supplies and ingredients (tubs of frosting is not something you see on the norm here, nor are graham crackers), candy and other random goodies. We were also able to spend the afternoon catching each other up on life events as I hadn't seen her since volunteering at the Christmas party in 2018. She was, of course, curious what happened to my boyfriend - the 2018 Santa Claus, but as she's a great listener I didn't mind opening that door again.
That's one of the things I love so much about Grace, she's an attentive listener and you know that when she asks a question she's genuinely interested in hearing the answer. This quality is one of the reasons Grace is the perfect person to bring to life all of the plans and ideas KKOOM has for the children of South Korea. There is no doubt about where Graces' passions lie and why she is involved in the work she is, it's 100% for the kids and she's sure to share with each and every one of them how appreciated they are. Working alongside Grace motivates me to do more and be better for all of those involved in my life.
Volunteers gathered at Samsungwon around 11:30 although I was late, thanks to missing my train from Daegu by about 5 minutes. Aside from listening to background information and rules for volunteering, both things I've heard multiple times, the time was spent figuring out who was going where. For the first half of the days, the kids would be separated between the upper level and kitchen, with a handful of activities to be done at both locations. Volunteers helping upstairs would host a photo booth, face painting and nail art, while those downstairs in the cafeteria were helping kids create Christmas cards for donors of KKOOM and cookie decorating. While the parties have remained generally the same over the years, the one thing that has changed a bit is the volunteers in attendance. When I first began volunteering, the bulk of volunteers came from the surrounding community, teachers living in Gumi or Daegu. Now though, the volunteers were almost exclusively Fulbright scholars, and came from every corner of Korea, even Jeju. Although it was nice to see support coming from far and wide, it felt strange to me that no one was from the actual city hosting the event.
The activities started at 2 pm and as kids emerged from their houses I quickly began to recognize some familiar faces, despite the fact that their height and size had significantly changed. The four boys I used to work with are all still living at Samsungwon, but had little interest in talking to me. I'd like to believe that's more due to being a high school boy than it is anything to do with me as a person. I was excited though when I spotted Mrs. Noh, the house mother I first worked alongside 8 years ago. I found out she recently retired, but that evidently doesn't stop her from coming to help out. The card making and cookie decorating were both a success and a mess, with some boys choosing to cover not only their cookies but also their phone cases with frosting, again let's blame the age. The girls were definitely a little neater with their creations, but half of them were so distracted by one of the [good looking] male volunteers they didn't put much focus on their work.
After the kids were finished with the first group of activities we all walked to a nearby BBQ restaurant for dinner. I've recently been trying to avoid meat, but living in Korea can prove to be somewhat of a challenge on that front, although rice and ban chan are almost always enough to fill you. Every year we eat at this restaurant is the same, tables where kids are sitting none of the vegetable side dishes get touched, only mountains of meat consumed, while tables with volunteers it's almost the exact opposite.
After dinner we returned to Samsungwon for the rest of the party activities; gingerbread house making, performances and of course presents. The kids were much more creative than I would have been with their gingerbread houses, I'm glad I didn't have to judge as they were all unique and quality made. A handful of students also performed, there were seven flute players and a handful of dances, it's always the little ones though that steal the show. Finally, Santa dropped by to hand out gifts, weird how vividly that part of the evening took me back to two years ago, and before long the kids were done with us and heading back to their homes. The day of the Chirstmas party is always a little bit chaotic, but the kids are always so energetic and filled with excitement, which proves KKOOM is doing good here.