By Neeti Virmani, Welfare Chair

They say that children are a gift from God to mankind. Well, that’s exactly the feeling that came to mind when I performed my first site visit, as part of SIWA’s Welfare Committee, to The Pigeon Study Room in Busan, along with Anne Choe, Barbara Bai and Milly Kim.

The Pigeon Study Room, which was started in 1993, is located in a quaint apartment in a residential area. A nun in Seoul who previously lived in Busan referred this place to SIWA. The school is owned by The Catholic Order.

The school runs an after-school program, which includes homework completion and recreation for schoolchildren from grade 1 through high school. It manages 34 children, including one special-needs child: 29 boys and five girls. The school opens at 10 a.m. Monday to Friday and the children arrive at 1 p.m. after school and stay until 9 p.m. The program follows a fixed curriculum, with reading and writing every Monday. From 1 until 9, they complete homework and arts and crafts. On weekends, the children often come to stay at the school.

I was glad to see that they have picnics also for children’s recreation. However, I was taken aback by one story. One child had come to school on the weekend to stay there, because his father is an alcoholic who had beat him on various occasions. Even today, it gives me goosebumps to even think of such situations and how the great work of certain people is helping create a high positive impact on mankind.

Most of the parents of the children work outside the home. In homes where there have been abusive parents, the school has reported them. For example, in one case, the situation was reported and the father was required to attend counseling. The parents and teacher meet formally twice a year. Otherwise, health and psychological reports are given informally to the parents regularly. I was amazed to see the kind of infrastructure that is provided to make the children feel like they have a second home. The facility includes three classrooms for studying and recreation, one dining room with hygienic dispenser for oral healthcare. There are dashboards where the children put up charts on which they express their feelings about themselves, family and friends. They have a first-aid facility in the school but the nuns are trained to provide medical assistance. Funding comes largely from the government, private donations or through the church. Since the neighborhood is in a low-income area, the church’s income also is low. All receipts are given to the government.

As an institution they are currently running hand-to-mouth. The rent is paid by the city government. Salaries are paid by the city, though they are very low (KRW 5,000 to 6,000 per hour per teacher). Variable expenses are about 4,000 won per day per child. Fixed maintenance expense are 400,000 won and additional expenses are 500,000 won. All expenses are recorded and documented by the school. It was such an enlightening experience for me to see that all of the work was being managed by only one part-time teacher and two other permanent senior citizen nuns who double up for the roles of teacher, first-aid attendant and therapist. The teachers have been working for in the school for more than two years, thereby maintaining continuity. After the site visit, SIWA supported them with KRW 6 million, which helped them fund an educational trip for 15 children and five teachers to Jeju Island and a laundry machine at the study room.

This is the first time the school has been funded by an expat organization.

The site visit gave me a lot of in-depth understanding of the social issues that exist in Korea and the fantastic work that is being done by the community to support such issues. But above all, it left me with a feeling of gratitude that I’ve been equipped with all the basic needs of life, which many of us tend to take for granted.

If you’re interested in volunteering, email welfare@siwakorea.com.

About the author:

Neeti Virmani has 15 years’ experience in senior leadership roles with leading Indian brands in telecom, FMCG, media & entertainment. Chair of SIWA’s Welfare Committee, she moved to Korea with her husband in September 2015.