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  •   Asia's Broken Lives
    S. Korean Family's Plight Inspires Giving

    By Kevin Sullivan
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Friday, Dec. 25, 1998

    SEOUL, Dec. 25 (Friday) – A part-time copy editor from Bowie, Md., and a banker from Singapore. The president of a Fairfax auto dealership and a pair of brothers, aged 10 and 7, from Roanoke. Strangers to each other but moved by a common compassion, each came forward to help a struggling South Korean family whose plight was chronicled in a Washington Post story last month.

    “We have built up such detachment from what we see on TV and read in the paper, that most times we are able to keep our compassion in check...but I couldn’t help but think, ’There but for the grace of God, go I,’” wrote Francis X. Burns Jr., a computer programmer who lives in Damascus, Md., with his wife, Ellen, a pre-school teacher, and their four children.

    The Burns family and many others sent a donation to help the family of Kim Myung Yun, a 39-year-old man from Seoul who was an insurance company executive until last June, when he lost his job to layoffs forced by the vicious economic crisis gripping South Korea and much of Asia.

    In the past month, more than $4,000 in cash has flowed in-and a benefactor in California, who wishes to remain anonymous for the moment, has pledged to arrange violin lessons for the Kim’s 12-year-old daughter, Eun Joo. That donor also promises to arrange summer school session in the United States and a scholarship to a prestigious American music college when Eun Joo is ready.

    That donation is worth thousands of times more than the $10 worth of Korean won sent in by a Washington man. What is common among the donors is not financial means, but the willingness to come to the aid of a stranger. Jean Fallon, a professor at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va., and her husband, Michael, an auto technician studying to be a teacher, said their own hard times in the past moved them to help the Kims.

    “My husband lost his job once, and we know how very hard it can be to go from one situation to another where even the small things (for us, such things as buying gifts for the birthday parties our children were invited to, eating at McDonalds, etc.) must be carefully considered,” Jean Fallon wrote.

    “(We have) had some difficult days, yet we received in more ways than we can count the abundant goodness of strangers . . .We are not wealthy, but have memories of what it means to be dispirited in the deepest sense of that word, on economic, spiritual and emotional levels. I doubt that anyone who has felt any true despair forgets what it feels like,” Jean Fallon wrote.

    The Fallons’ two sons, Aaron, 10, and Jordan, 7, are setting aside part of their allowance each week to help the Kim family.

    Mary Ann Harrison of College Park, Md., who retired in 1993 after a 36-year career with the Defense Department, sent a donation and offered to coordinate efforts to help the Kims, saying, “I’m a retired federal civil servant, so untangling red tape is second nature, and I’m happy to do what I can.”

    “The parents just came across as decent, worthy people trying very hard to cope with difficult times,” Harrison wrote. “If financial assistance will help get them through these times and perhaps help them in planning for a brighter future—well, that’s what money’s for, isn’t it?” The two largest contributions, $1,000 each, came from Singapore banker Melvin Ee, who read about the Kim family on the Post’s website, and Don Reilly, president of Fairfax Hyundai.

    Reilly, who sells South Korean-made cars and has visited Seoul several times, said he is fond of the Korean people and was moved by how far Kim had fallen from the middle class comfort he had taken for granted during South Korea’s boom years.

    “It just struck all the chords in me, that life has been good to me and I just wanted to help out. It hurt me to see someone hurting like that when he had been doing so well,” Reilly said.

    Ee targeted his contribution at Eun Joo’s musical career, and he said he plans to continue making similar contributions for as long as the family needs money. “A talent should never be left to waste, economic recession or otherwise,” Ee said.

    A single mother from Alexandria named Cindy said she couldn’t afford to send money, but she has offered to help organize an Internet campaign to raise money for the Kim’s. “I am just a single Mom in Alexandria and I don’t know what I can do to help,” the woman wrote in an email. “I thought perhaps we can not save the pain of all the families affected by the latest hurricane or floods, but perhaps we can save just this one talented child and make a difference in her life.”

    The Internet appeal, which has yielded a few hundred dollars, is being headed by Larry Sherwood, a computer programmer from Fairfax, who is married to a South Korean native and is angry the legacy of South Korea’s corrupt leaders of the past is a stolen future for children such as Eun Joo.

    Burns, of Damascus, said he “identified” with Kim. “If this were to happen to me...I know I would panic. And my panic would revolve around my inability to provide for my children. I didn’t want him to be overcome with embarrassment or shame at his predicament. I didn’t want him to lose hope.”

    Burns sent $384 in cash, an unusual amount he explained with a short family history. He said he grew up in a large family in a home filled with laughter and love, but very little money. He said his parents gave everything to their children.

    “At the end of their lives, they had amassed no material wealth or assets. They were content in the knowledge that they spent everything in raising their family,” Burn said. “My mother passed away last Christmas Eve, my father three years before her. Recently, each of my (eight) brothers and sisters received a check for $384 to close my mother’s meager estate. I know she is happy that she has assisted yet another family.”

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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