What is the next mountain you would like to climb?

Columban Fr Noel O'Neill with Kim Youn Cheong at the group home in Korea. Photo: Fr Noel O'Neill SSC

Columban Fr Noel O'Neill with Kim Youn Cheong at the group home in Korea. Photo: Fr Noel O'Neill SSC

It was 22-year-old Kim Youn Cheong on the phone. I think I was more excited than she was when I tried to convey to her how delighted I was on hearing the good news.

Youn Cheong has no memory of her mother or father. She was abandoned as a baby and placed in an orphanage. The only memory she has of the orphanage is that it was bitterly cold in the winter. Sleeping on the floor with no central heating and only the bodily heat from the other 29 in the dormitory giving some warmth. The summer months were not much better as there were no air conditioning or electric fans available to fight off the 32 degrees of heat. It meant opening the windows to an onslaught of mosquito bites.

At the age of six Youn Cheong was transferred to another orphanage in Gwangju City. This building had central heating and air conditioning. However, it had its demons, not material demons but human ones. For some unknown reason, the ten staff members seemed to be of one mind: to make life hell for the residents.

Youn Cheong said, "We did not have any new clothes. The clothes were always hand-me-downs from the older residents. A hairdresser came in once a week and you dare not tell her how you wanted your hair cut. All without exception were cut short. You had little or no privacy. If you stepped out of line, you were punished by a beating on the shins with a rod, deprived of a meal, or deprived of your sleep. Yes, it was hell on earth.”

It is not certain who it was, a member of the staff or one of the visiting volunteers who blew the whistle to the press, resulting in a thorough investigation.

Almost all the staff received prison sentences or were dismissed. Fortunately, a more humane and caring staff replaced them.

At this stage, Youn Cheong was attending high school. Since she was approaching her 18th birthday, her future in the orphanage was up for review. According to the regulations, after the age of 18, she could no longer be a resident in the orphanage. Since Youn Cheong was registered as a person with “special needs,” the authorities at the orphanage contacted the Emmaus Group Homes which I had founded to help better the lives of the differently-abled. Youn Cheong joined three other young women in one of the 16 group homes run by Emmaus.

Gemma Rhee, the assistant in the home, was a very caring and loving person. While the other three residents attended Emmaus Industries during the day, Youn Cheong continued her schooling. There was great excitement and celebrations on her graduation day with lots of photos and flowers.

In the warmth and family-like atmosphere, Youn Cheong experienced the motherly love of Gemma Rhee and began to blossom and believe in herself. Whenever there were group home functions, Youn Cheong would act as MC and perform her task with much gusto and self-confidence. It came as no surprise to Gemma when Youn Cheong confided with her and said she would like to go to college.
"I would like to climb another mountain” was the way she put it.

Gemma, after consulting with others, decided that it would be good for Youn Cheong to spend a year at one of the learning institutes to prepare for the college exam. She enrolled in night classes at one of the local learning institutes and in the meantime was fortunate to get a part-time job in a high school where she worked in the headmaster's office serving refreshments to visitors.

Two years ago, Youn Cheong was accepted at a nearby college to study social work. She attended night classes for two years and continued her part-time job at the high school. She earned enough money to buy her own books.

Because of her circumstances, the college authorities generously waived her college fees. It was also providential that she became friendly with a fellow college student who lived in the apartments next door. This student used to invite Youn Cheong to her home where she would be welcomed by her friends, parents and siblings. This also helped her grow in self-esteem. It was a joyful sight watching them walk side by side as they headed for the college.

Due to the restrictions brought on by COVID-19, there were no official college graduation celebrations. However, the president of the College presented a graduation certificate to each graduate privately. I waited impatiently outside to express my "chukhahamnida” (congratulations) to Youn Cheong.

Columban Fr Noel O'Neill with Kim Youn Cheong at her graduation in Korea. Photo: Fr Noel O'Neill SSC

Columban Fr Noel O'Neill with Kim Youn Cheong at her graduation in Korea. Photo: Fr Noel O'Neill SSC

It was a moment I will cherish forever.

As I posed with Youn Cheong for a photo, I turned to her and asked, "What is the next mountain you would like to climb?" With a big smile on her face, she looked at me and said "Independent living!”

Columban Fr Donal McIlraith, Mission Awareness and Education, Fiji.

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