Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas Party at Samdong Boys Town

Every year the few people who regularly volunteer at the Samdong Boys Town (orphanage) organize a Christmas party for the boys. This year the Christmas party had probably as many volunteers as there were boys in the orphanage (66). The volunteers were to brings cookies, treats, presents, and games. One lady spent the whole previous evening and the morning of the party baking brownies and cookie-bars. She brought a whole backpack full of containers and a warm cake pan full of more: fig bars, apple bars, peanut butter choco-chip brownies, choco-chip brownies and lemon bars! Everyone contributed something AND was rewarded with a day of fun time with the kids.

Together the team of volunteers laid out a fantastic spread of food for the boys. After the food was laid out, the boys filed in and took their seats according to age - youngest in the front. To warm up the kids to all the activities, Christmas hats or antler head-pieces were randomly tossed out to the group followed by some small pieces of candy. Yep, the group was warming up! To kick off the program, some of the younger boys had prepared 2 songs to sing (not Christmas songs - Korea is only really starting to "celebrate" Christmas like westerners) to their foreign visitors and then all of us responded with 2 songs: Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and Jingle Bells (the boys were given the printed words to sing along). Then those who volunteered for crafts stationed their tables. All told there were probably 16 little crafts and several of the boys were able to do 3 of them, which they proudly carried around the room. After the crafts got organized, the outdoor games were started and that's where the older boys quickly migrated to - many thought they were too old to do the little cutsie Christmas crafts although a couple of the larger boys did indulge.

Outside there were at least 10 little game activities set up, most based on dexterity and the ability to throw or balance. For boys who successfully accomplished the activity, a point ticket was awarded him and when he had enough points he could go to the prize table and redeem his points for a prize. All prizes were of different values but the one prize that many boys had their eyes on was a gigantic container of mixed popcorn treats. The boy who won it whooped around the yard holding the container high over his head with his friends dancing around him!

The weather was getting colder as the sun slipped low in the sky so the boys were rounded up and returned to the cafeteria where the festivities were to be concluded. When the boys were all sitting again in their assigned chairs, Santa came "Merry Christmassing" in, dressed in red and asking if any boys had been good that year. The younger boys seemed more familiar with the regular volunteers and seemed to know more English - they of couse shouted that they had been VERY good! Santa bellowed some more greetings and his little elf dressed in a red Chinese dressing gown came to help him distribute the gifts by age to all the boys in the orphanage. I'm not sure what the older boys got but the younger boys got giant coloring or picture books and a rubbery dinosaur ....... but the three little three-year-olds who didn't participate much (too young) seemed to have hung the moon when they got their little dinosaurs! The orphanage "mother" Lee Jong Won also was given a gift for appreciation of her years of love and care to the boys.

I spoke with Lee Jong Won afterwards and she has worked in this orphanage for 54 years! This particular orphanage was opened in 1952 by the American servicemen who organized a home for the huge number of homeless children they were always encountering. [Reported numbers of orphanages during/after the war were no less than 400; David Hyungbok Kim in his book Who Will Answer... suggests as many as 800.] The orphanage has moved 4 times since 1952 with the most recent move 4 years ago to its present site with new facilities. But actually, like all orphanages in Korea, Samdong Boys Town does not house "true" orphans - by definition, children without living parents or parent. The children here are victims of divorced parents who cannot take the child bearing another name or not having the blood of the other parent into a new marriage relationship; the children are victims of abuse, or from low-income families who cannot take care of their children's needs properly. When I asked how many "true" orphans there were at Boys Town, the orphanage mother didn't clearly answer my question. She said, "They are from families of divorce or abuse and so come here became they cannot stay in that situation, so they are all true orphans." Obviously the definition of "true orphan" varies based on perspective.

If the families would release the boys for adoption rather than put them in orphanages to grow up, the boys could have the much-needed family atmosphere. The orphanage system in Korea (like in many countries) is very controversial. Yes, it is better than children living on the streets, but in actuality, when parents just put their children in a home to grow up and do not sign for the children to be adopted into a family atmosphere and experience a real family through adoption (if Koreans are willing to adopt), then this system needs to be altered.

Some pictures of Boys Town back in the 1950s: 1st picture is a presentation ceremony, 2nd picture is of some boys enjoying the traditional ways of "skating" on wooden sleds propelled by strength via using wooden poles for pushing:


  1. This is so sad. To think that a kid can't have a family anymore cause Mom and Dad don't get along is just too sad! Hopefully that will change. What is the divorce rate there?

  2. As of the last few years, the divorce rate is the highest in the world. Yes, it has just surpassed the US's divorce rate ...... but it probably surpassed the US's a few years back as not all marriages are recorded which makes getting 'divorced' sooo much easier.

  3. Hi Cheryl,

    I wish to visit SamDong Boys Orphanage when I'm in Seoul on 1-13Jan 2011 but could not get in touch with anyone there? I have e-mail to them but no replies. Could you connect me with someone there who speaks english?
    My e-mail is

    Thanks & Rgds,

  4. Hi Andrea,

    I did research on the changing adoption system in Korea but for this event I was a Xmas party voluteer, so I have no contacts. There are several places where you can volunteer on a regular basis, which is very important as the kids need some continuity of people in their lives, but you can also just volunteer to play the kids for an afternoon - at places where peole volunteer, online schedules are posted.

    The person who used to head the volunteer group left the country rather abruptly about the same time I finished my research and I think the volunteer group has been reorganized since (3-4 years ago), but if you google search volunteer in an orpahange in Seoul, you should find what you're looking for.

    Sorry, my contacts are no longer valid :(