As an expat family, it’s not easy to find volunteer opportunities in South Korea that would allow children to attend. Covid, too, had put a pause on a lot of in-person activities as the risk was too great for certain communities. However, as the risk of Covid has seemingly waded, we decided to jump in with the entire family. Especially as these places need volunteers now more than ever.
If you would like to share a place that you volunteer at in Seoul or outside of Seoul, South Korea, please drop a comment below!
Empathy for Life, Yongin Pound, and Aniband Rescue Shelter often accept volunteers though unlikely to allow young children. However, if you’re child-free, this is a great way to get involved as South Korea.
My Korean mother and I were discussing dogs in Korea the other day as she’s very much an animal lover, but wasn’t so much one growing up in Korea. It’s a stark contrast to the toy-sized, designer pups you see in baby carriages across Seoul. There is still a fear of larger dogs like the native Jindo breed, the excess dogs from puppy mills, and then there’s the dog-meat restaurants that still exist. They’re dying out, the restaurants, and I’m hopeful that within a few generations time, they’ll go away forever. It’s a misconception that all Koreans love to eat dogs and especially untrue now for most people.
Regarding involving children at animal shelters, I reached out to one animal shelter, and they agreed that the risk was too high for young children and — understandably so — they most likely didn’t want to be held liable in case any untrained dogs decided to get a bit bitey.
Volunteering with Individuals Who Are Homeless
We were initially looking for a soup kitchen to volunteer at but found most were organized by church groups, and we weren’t sure about the logistics.
Instead, we attended the Sunday Walk with PLUR to feed people experiencing homelessness one Sunday night at Seoul Station. One thing to add is that the PLUR group does accept children with parental supervision. We RSVP’ed on their Meetup page, messaged the organizers, and met the big group at Seoul Station. The organizers prepared food in plastic bags beforehand to hand out, and they gave us a rundown on what to expect and how to treat people with respect. At the end of the event, they accepted a 10,000 KRW donation (in cash or via bank transfer) from each attendee.
We noticed the majority of the individuals living in Seoul Station were seniors. I learned years ago that the social welfare system in South Korea was not introduced until 1988, leaving an entire generation with little to no safety net.
According to the Korean Herald article, “Elderly population outgrows social safety net”:
Hur Jun-soo, a professor of social welfare at Soongsil University, said that the overall quality of Korea’s welfare measures for the elderly remains near the bottom among 38 OECD member countries.– Korea Herald
Hur Jun-soo, a professor of social welfare at Soongsil University, said that the overall quality of Korea’s welfare measures for the elderly remains near the bottom among 38 OECD member countries.
“The share of the budget allocated to senior welfare out of the nation’s total welfare budget stands at 25 percent. This is a significantly low figure compared to 45 percent in Japan or 39 percent in France.
Government spending on senior citizens’ welfare should increase in line with the country’s economic growth as well as the aging population,” he told The Korea Times.
As for the main reason why so many elderly Koreans are struggling with poverty compared with other countries, he pointed to the late introduction of the national pension scheme.
“Korea’s public pension system was first launched in 1988, whereas it was introduced a century earlier in countries like Germany. Also, the basic monthly pension paid to retirees is too small compared to other countries and insufficient to cover their basic needs.”
And from NPR article, “A Forgotten Generation: Half Of South Korea’s Elderly Live In Poverty”, “’Almost half the elderly people is poor in Korea. So really it’s a very serious problem,’ says Ku In-hoe, a professor at Seoul National University who researches poverty issues.” It broke our hearts to see people who could easily be our grandparents or ourselves in a few decades living like that. Many were ashamed and preferred to be left alone as they hid in makeshift cardboard tents.
When we talked to one of the organizers, he also explained that the city mayor was pushing out the homeless from the city as they wanted the city to look more tourist-friendly and much of the funding for social safety nets from the government had dried up.
As for the walk itself, we felt safe, it was well organized, and the duration of the event was about 1.5 hours as we moved throughout the station, stopping by an underpass close to the station. The attendees were a good mix of long-term and short-term expats and tourists, and it was also a good way to meet friendly, like-minded people. We were impressed to learn that they had been going every Sunday for more than 13 years.
We also beat their record of youngest volunteer. One of the founders had told us that he used to bring his then 9-year-old daughter many moons ago. Our three kids (8, 11, and 13 years old) had never seen homeless people before — an odd side effect of living in a country where marginalized communities are often pushed aside — and I wanted us all to put money where our mouth is by donating not just our money but our time to helping those in need.
We asked our younger girls how they felt about the experience, and they said that they were surprised to learn that there were people living in the station. It’s a stark contrast to growing up in the United States where you had to close your eyes to avoid seeing people struggling in the city. One of our girls told us that she had realized how privileged she was for the first time. “It’s a good start,” we told her. We hope we can volunteer regularly as I don’t want it to be a one-time event or a spectator sport for our children.
Volunteering at a Home for Those with Disabilities
On the first and third Saturday of the month, there is a group that goes to Angel House, a home for those with disabilities, in Goyang, South Korea. I believe there are about fifty (50) residents of Angel House. You can also read more about Angel House via the article, “Volunteers find purpose at Angel House for the disabled”, from Korea Joongang Daily.
They accept monetary donations and need supplies such as adult diapers, food (including rice and hot pepper paste), dish soap, cooking oil, rubber gloves, laundry detergent, menstrual pads, clothes, and underwear.
During our time there, we cleaned the bathrooms and the facility, and then we did the nails of the residents — clipping the nails, filing them, and adding a little colorful polish. The girls truly leaned in on the nail polish as it is one of their favorite home activities, and the residents were happy and grateful to receive the attention. We noted that on our next visit, beyond bringing crucial supplies, we should also throw in some nail polish and nail care products.
Meanwhile, half of the group was cooking to prepare dinner. We had a little dance party for the residents, and our 8-year-old truly loved dancing with the residents. She shook her little behind while singing, “Shake like a bumble bee!” She was surprised to see the residents had their own fantastic dance moves as well.
My partner had a lot of hesitation about bringing the youngest to see those with disabilities since she was completely unaware they existed. “What are they teaching them in school?” I asked. I was afraid the kids would gawk, but they quickly realized how sweet-natured the residents were and, in turn, felt safe and happy around them.
After the dinner, we were wrapping up by cleaning the plates, utensils, and the kitchen. We took a group photo outside with the residents. One of the residents hugged me goodbye, and I felt so happy to have visited them.
Other Ways You Can Help
There are other nonprofits that accept monetary donations like KUMFA. We often give away our kids clothing to local churches, but as one of our neighbors had put it, “They don’t always end up where they’re supposed to.” So, mixed feelings about that one.
Sometimes, if you post in groups like the Facebook group, MONA – Really Free Things in Korea, nonprofits will reach out and accept the donations, but more often than not, you’ll have a flood of comments from everyone else under the sun.
We recently reached out to KUMFA to see if they accept physical donations like children and women’s clothing, however, they had said they do not currently have the space for it. They do a toy drive around Christmas, so I suggest contacting them about that around November.
We reached out to NKHR earlier this year via email, but we never heard a response. I assume it may be easier to call them in Korean and ask directly.