Friday, June 26, 2009


Forty years ago this summer, between my junior and senior years of high school, our family and our Korean colleagues embarked on an extraordinary adventure. 

Carpenters and cooks, nurses and nurses' aides, and visiting doctors and volunteers, both Korean and foreign, together built a community health project directed by my father on Kojedo, a remote rural island off the southern coast. The model we developed there influenced the design of South Korea's rural health care delivery system. The boldness and difficulty of what we attempted forged deep and abiding relationships, like those of war buddies.

I spent the year after high school and a year and a half after college as a volunteer with the project. My social peers were the nurses' aides, island girls who were trained to deliver basic public health care to the subsistence-level farmers and fishermen of their villages. 

In addition to creating posters for health education, my assistant Kun-sun and I ran the Mu-ji-gae Tabang (Rainbow Tearoom), where the aides gathered on their breaks for a snack of instant coffee and homemade cookies.

Last week, thirty-two years since I left Kojedo, I returned (with my daughter, Yunhee, and her fiance, Josh) for three days of reunions with former staff members, including many of the nurses' aides. What a joy it was to see their faces again, unchanged despite our transformation from unmarried girls into middle-aged mothers, wives and professional women. 

The island itself has been trans-formed by the presence of two of the world's largest shipyards. Unpaved roads and walking paths among villages with straw- and tile-roofed houses have been replaced with a network of highways connecting busy towns and cities with clusters of high-rise apartments. The peninsula site of our project has returned to nature and is preserved as a city park, with a monument to my father and a soaring bridge connecting to the island across the channel.

But the island still has fresh air and ocean breezes; gorgeous vistas along a shoreline of steep hills, inlets and bays; fresh seafood cooked in spicy broths; and lovely people speaking the island dialect, warmly welcoming us home.

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