How To Build Your Community

Story by: Kristin Mashie, Photos by: James Kim

Shannon Heit wanted to make a difference. She wanted to right a wrong, and she just wanted to feel more a part of the community.

Heit found purpose in helping to right the injustices she discovered against unwed single moms. Now she coordinates the volunteer program for the Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association, and has gone a step further to educate communities in her spare time about violence against women in its many forms as a member of the Women’s Global Solidarity Action Network.

“I learned about the difficulties that unwed mothers face, essentially making adoption their only choice,” she said. “As an adoptee, I felt compelled to do what I can, though it may not be much, in order to support women who want to raise their own children.”

For fellow volunteer Ashley Guillaume, the women and children she helps have become who she calls family.

“I honestly wouldn’t be the same person without them,” she said. “It’s completely unfair how this society treats women in general, but to know what actually happens to these women who are brave enough to go against the social norm because they want to raise their own child, even if it’s all alone, makes me want to stand by their side.”

As she testifies, the people she works with help her just as much as she helps them. And she is one of many expats whose lives have changed through volunteering in Korea. Whether it’s helping the homeless or raising awareness about human rights, teaching underprivileged children or walking dogs that rarely get outside, there are tons of ways to make visible differences in the community.

For most organizations, it’s not about the money. Although donations are always appreciated, they welcome people’s willingness to share their time, talent and ideas.

Brain Wielk, a group leader from PLUR, which is dedicated to helping the homeless, recognizes the importance of that. “The fact that there are so many others from diverse walks of life who share the desire to devote their time and energy is truly a gift, because the product of all of these people coming together, in whatever form of giving they may choose, is to me an expression of some of the best of what people can be for each other,” he said.

Before you sign up, ask yourself: What do you want from the experience? Understanding what you want to get out of the time and energy youíre investing will help you decide which project is best for you. As Casey Lartigue, the international adviser for Mulmangcho School, said, “The volunteers who come in with a plan or can communicate how they can help are the ones who typically remain committed. Try to figure out how you can help. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you how to volunteer.”

No matter how you volunteer, choose something that lets you use your passion and skills to help others, meet people and improve the community. And who knows? Maybe you’ll even find your niche.

Here are Groove Korea’s suggestions to help you kick-start your volunteerism with organizations around the country that are actively working to change the world around them.


James Kim, the founder of Korea International Volunteers, is in the kitchen every week with a group of expats making and serving up 400 to 500 hot meals for their guests, who are homeless.

“We just want to help people who are going through difficult times,” Kim said. “Just as we go through difficult times, so do they, but we have friends and family to help us. They don’t.”

Kim’s organization also helps underprivileged children at government-funded centers. These children come from the lowest income class and many have parents who work blue-collar jobs that require them to work up to 24-hour shifts. As a result, they don’t have anyone at home and are therefore at risk for crime, sexual assault and dangerous situations.

With more than 1,500 members, the group regularly brings together Koreans and expats to serve meals at shelters for the homeless and to teach and visit underprivileged children.

Peace, Love, Unity, Respect also strives to create a movement through positive acts of kindness in the community. The group organizes weekly activities, including coordinating volunteers to work at a soup kitchen or in the area around Seoul Station on Friday and Sunday evenings. They also hold fundraisers, including trivia nights, to raise money for supplies and build their membership.

Meanwhile, Jang Soon-ok, who at 130 centimeters tall embodies her nickname, started Angel House 20 years ago to help people with disabilities like herself. Today, the community she serves knows her as the ìtiny angelî and the 40 residents ranging in age from 1 to 60 who live there know her as Omma, or Mother.

“It was always my dream growing up because I have suffered from disabilities myself and I also grew up in this kind of home,” she said. “I have always wanted to help people like myself and that’s been my motivation.”

Most of the residents have mental rather than physical disabilities – meaning they don’t have the skills to live on their own – and most have families who cannot provide the resources to give them the round-the-clock support they need. The majority will stay at the house for the rest of their lives.

Angel House provides residents with small tasks such as assembling toothbrush holders or plastic stick-on-the-wall hooks. According to Jang, the work allows them to make a little bit of money, but more importantly, it helps them build self-esteem, improve their mobility and gain a sense of autonomy.

A group of about 35 to 40 English-speaking volunteers visits the house on the first Saturday of every month to prepare meals, clean, organize programs and socialize with residents. Angel House also accepts donations of clothing and household items, which can be mailed or brought to the facility directly.

“Having visitors means a lot to them. It gives them a lot of courage and hope,” Jang said.

Angel House is just one of the orphanages listed by the Korean Kids and Orphanage Outreach Mission, which started as a volunteer project at an orphanage in Gumi, North Gyeongsang Province. KKoom – meaning “dream” in Korean – is now a nonprofit that reaches out to orphanages throughout Korea, with a list of volunteer opportunities in districts across Korea available on its website.

Additionally, Bean is a nonprofit with more than 10,000 members around the globe that strives to unite people passionate about leadership, outreach and service, to network and serve the community. The Bean chapter in Seoul organizes regular visits to orphanages, where volunteers teach and spend time with the children.


Korea International Volunteers: or

Peace, Love, Unity, Respect (PLUR): Join their group on Facebook

Angel House:

Korean Kids and Orphanage Outreach Mission (KKoom): or

Bean: or


Shannon Heit, volunteer coordinator for the Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association, says that discrimination and economic challenges are among the biggest problems that single moms face, leaving them with few choices for the care of their children.

“I learned about the difficulties that unwed mothers face, essentially making adoption their only choice,” she said. “As an adoptee, I felt compelled to do what I can, though it may not be much, in order to support women who want to raise their own children.”

The solution, she says, is to change public policy and social perceptions about the moms and their children. She got involved with the organization a few years back and has since become one of its strongest expat advocates, doing everything from translation and interpretation to publicity and program planning.

KUMFA is just one of two growing organizations, along with the Korea Unwed Mothers Support Network, that exist to do just that. They both also aim to raise awareness to the obstacles faced by women who choose to raise their children on their own in Korea, while providing a venue for them to advocate for their rights.

According to the KUMSN, 70 percent of unwed pregnant women in Korea give up their children, while the figure is only 2 percent in the United States. The women who do choose to keep their children are condemned not only by society, but often by their families. Many of the moms have been kicked out of their homes and are living alone for the first time.

Heit said she thinks the organization has been able to draw and maintain its group of volunteers because of the relationships formed between the volunteers, the kids and the moms.

“I think people really understand that it’s a basic human right to be able to have a real choice to raise your child – one that historically hasn’t been protected – and, like me, others feel passionate about supporting these strong, loving moms in whatever way they can,” she said.

Ashley Guillaume started volunteering with KUMFA a couple of years ago when she went to spend an afternoon with the kids. She now volunteers at least once a month.

“These mothers and their children have all become my own family over the past few years,” she said.”I honestly wouldn’t be the same person without them. It’s completely unfair how this society treats women in general, but to know what actually happens to these women who are brave enough to go against the social norm because they want to raise their own child, even if it’s all alone, makes me want to stand by their side.”

KUMFA holds monthly meetings in which moms can participate in educational lectures and networking. They also organize camps and overnight trips for families throughout the year.

The organization has 20 regular volunteers and roughly 50 in all. Most volunteers babysit, but there are other opportunities to get involved with teaching English to the moms and their children and help with translation and event coordination.

KUMFA also maintains a facility called Heater that serves as a residence for women who opt to keep their children. It houses up to 24 mothers and their children each year and donations are needed to improve the facility and help them move to a larger space.

In addition to volunteer help, donations of household goods and electronics are always welcome.

Adoptive father Dr. Richard Boas was an international adoption supporter who changed course after he met a group of unwed single mothers on a trip to Korea in 2006. Their stories inspired him to start KUMSN, which is now under Korean leadership. Like KUMFA, the organization is in need of volunteers who are able to help in one of the following areas: translation, research, proofreading, childcare, teaching English to women and children, office work and photography.


Korean Unwed Mothersí Families Association (KUMFA): or

Korea Unwed Mothers Support Network (KUMSN): or


Only 40 miles north of Seoul, North Korean citizensí rights are slim to none. There is no free speech or free trade. Citizens are undernourished and overworked. They are not allowed to leave the country without permission, let alone travel freely. Their only chance of escape is to China, where they live in hiding. If they are caught trying to escape by the North Korean government, they are shot or thrown into labor camps, where they will face conditions comparable to those during the Holocaust.

International law forbids the repatriation of refugees, but the Chinese and, most recently, Laotian governments have built a reputation for repatriating refugees back to North Korea, where they face possible punishments of forced labor, torture, persecution and execution. The North Koreans who are able to make it to South Korea face the challenge of resettling and integrating into society upon their arrival. Support for defectors’ physical and psychological needs is a continuous effort.

There are several NGOs in Seoul that are actively raising awareness to the crisis in the North, raising funds for the refugees who have escaped, and organizing support for those who have resettled.

One grassroots organization, Justice for North Korea, regularly hosts campaigns and fundraisers to raise awareness to the challenges defectors face. The organization says it costs roughly $1,000 to rescue a North Korean refugee, with the funds going to brokers who smuggle the refugees through China to Southeast Asia, where they can receive asylum at a South Korean embassy.

Gabrielle Bishop, a JFNK volunteer, said it was easy to become involved and see her efforts make a tangible difference. “At the end of a night filled with music, free giveaways, new friends and tons of community support, it’s exhilarating to hear that a fundraiser you helped make possible has changed a life, or two or three,” she said after a summer fundraiser.

Liberty in North Korea, a large grassroots organization based out of California with an office here in Seoul, invites volunteers to join or start a Rescue Team in their community by hosting concerts, art walks and bake sales to raise funds for refugee rescues. LiNK also offers an internship in which participants travel North America campaigning for North Korean refugees.

One North Korean refugee, a university student who asked that his name not be used, said interacting with South Koreans is difficult because of the differences in how they think. He receives tutoring through Volunteering for Mulmangcho three to four times a month.

Mulmangcho coordinates volunteers who teach, mentor and spend time with disadvantaged kids from North Korea at Mulmangcho School, which aims to help educate and heal the physical and psychological wounds of young refugees from the North. The group meets with the children almost every Sunday morning to teach English, facilitate activities and play games.

The volunteer English teacher comes and meets me as a friend,” he said. “It’s very natural and there’s no pressure, so I can speak freely.”


Justice for North Korea: or

Liberty in North Korea: or

Volunteering for Mulmangcho: Join their group on Facebook


Korea has made much of its rise from being one of the poorest countries in the world to becoming a model of growth, but on the way up it also bulldozed its way into a housing shortage, a large socioeconomic gap and an increase in slum settlements. Although the government has launched several programs to address the situation, there is still a high demand for affordable and adequate housing.

On the flip side of all that development, Korea’s farmland has decreased as the population has increased, creating a higher demand for food than what can be supplied. Farmers have lost their land and cheap imports have whittled away at their profits. Yet despite these hardships, youíll still find farms run by families across Korea once you venture out of the cities.

The international nonprofit housing organization Habitat for Humanity works in Korea to eliminate poverty, housing and homelessness by providing affordable houses to low-income families. All volunteers contribute eight hours of construction labor and pay their own expenses related to volunteering (about 30,000 won), which includes lunch, water, gloves and construction insurance. The organization also offers programs for those wanting to take on bigger projects. The organization’s Global Village project sends volunteers overseas to work alongside members of the host community to break the cycle of poverty in developing countries.

Willing Workers on Organic Farms links volunteers with host organic farms in Korea and around the globe. Wwoofers choose the host farm of their choice, which depending on the season ranges from vegetable farms and stock farms to orchards and schools. Wwoofers exchange four to six hours of work for food and accommodation with the host for a couple of days or for as long as the host is willing.


Habitat for Humanity Korea: or

Willing Workers on Organic Farms: or


Of reportedly more than 200,000 women who were conscripted into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II, 60 registered survivors currently live in Korea as of July 25, 2012, according to the Women’s Global Solidarity Action Network. Their numbers are further dwindling as they advance in age. Few of these women have the support of family and must rely on each other and outsiders for support.

The Women’s Global Solidarity Action Network is a group of Koreans and expats who work together to raise awareness to the suppression of women’s rights around the world, including the wartime sexual enslavement of women by the Japanese military, sex trafficking and all forms of violence against women. They hold educational events on a monthly basis and often collaborate with a number of local groups, including the Korean Council for Women Drafted into Military Sexual Slavery by Japan ( The council organizes the weekly protests in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, in addition to running the War and Womenís Human Rights Museum in Hongdae, where WGSAN runs regular English-language tours of the facility.

WGSAN also works with Durebang (, which supports Filipina women trafficked into Korea’s military camp towns with counseling, job training and education, as well as “Haetsal,” which provides housing, health care and other services to women who worked in Korea’s gijichon, the red light districts that rose up around U.S. military bases.

The House of Sharing is home to several former “comfort women” and also operates a museum dedicated to documenting their experiences. Volunteers visit with the halmoni (grandmothers), help with English-language materials and help maintain the facilities.


Women’s Global Solidarity Action Network:,

House of Sharing:,


Having been abandoned or abused, animals are kept in cages in some of the many shelters around the country. A lot of them rarely receive human interaction and, with most shelters housing more than 60 animals, the shelter owners need a lot of help caring for the animals and maintaining their facilities.

There are a few organizations that facilitate volunteering all around the country. Typical volunteer work includes cleaning the shelters, feeding, grooming, vaccinating and walking the animals and, of course, playing with them.

Animal Rescue Korea (ARK) is an online community for information about helping animals and lists of shelters around the country where you can help out.

Interested in getting involved as an animal rights activist and as a volunteer for animal rights? Check out the nonprofit organizations

Coexistence of Animal Rights on Earth (CARE) and Korea Animal Rights Advocates (KARA). Both organizations share similar missions: to promote and defend animal rights and educate the public about the ethical issues surrounding animal protection. “We’re very active in the community through our protests and demonstrations,” said AJ Garcia of CARE. “Our organization is invited to conferences to speak and we even lobby for legislation.”


Animal Rescue Korea (ARK): or join their group on Facebook

Coexistence of Animal Rights on Earth (CARE): or

Korea Animal Rights Advocates (KARA): or

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