Ambassador’s Message – Sister Gerardine Ryan in Mokpo
3 May 2011
Recently I travelled to Mokpo, in the southwest, Jeollam-do. The province has historically been one of the poorest and consequently restive. Yong Am gun on the outskirts of Mokpo city has a major ship-building company working there but absent that there are precious few industries. Fishing and agriculture are important: No surprise then that many of the young leave for the bright lights of Busan and Seoul.
Some thirty- six years ago, Sister Gerardine of the Columban Order arrived to help with a mission to provide health care for the poor of the area and its many islands. The Columban sisteres started medical work in Mokpo when they first arived in 1955. Gradually answering the medical needs of the time they eventually built a large hospital of four hundred beds on a hill in the city, offering medical care to many and providing a sub-economy in the vicinity. In the 1990 the hospital was handed over to the diocese, but a series of management missteps tragically led to its closure and demolition.
By this stage, Sr. Gerardine had devoted her attention to adults with special needs. Those mentally and physically handicapped encounter problems in all societies. Confucianism, with its emphasis on an ideally ordered and harmonious family, influenced by Buddhism’s notion of reincarnation and inter-generational reward and punishment, means that those with special needs face particular difficulties here, especially in rural areas where traditional beliefs persist more strongly.
My first stop was at Myongdo Child Care Centre. ‘Myongdo’ translates as ‘the bright way’, capturing the sense that special needs people can and should realise their potential and live as independently as possible. Some 89 special needs children with ages ranging from 8 months to 11 years of age are looked after there with trained educational specialists and therapists. The facilities are first class and the environment stimulating and caring.
Next stop was the Myongdo Work shop where 40 adult men and women engage in making bread, manufacturing washing soap and soap powder, and undertaking various contract work from factories. They earn a salary from the monies generated through these workshop activities. I asked how on earth Sister Geraldine came up with the idea of making soap. She casually said she had seen it somewhere and gave it a go with some buckets and ladles, eventually getting the technique right and investing in two machines.
Both the Child Care Centre and Workshop were made possible with the help and continuing support of the British Association of Seoul and indeed the British Embassy. BASS are also supporting a residential house in Mokpo which Sr Gerardine is building to allow special needs adults live in the community, a project inspired by a similar venture in Germany. The house is largely complete but needs finishing work internally which will be undertaken when funding is found.
Our final stop was the Sister’s headquarters essentially, Myongdo Welfare Centre. On a daily basis, some 150 people of varying ages with various disabilities avail of the many programs offered at the centre from early intervention education to work shop and pre-employment training, to day- care facilities for the more profoundly challenged persons. The Centre also has a respite facility which offers temporary accommodation to special needs people allowing parents a break and enabling them to attend functions together or get away on holidays. Alteratively it offers shelter to the special needs person in crisis family situations.
With outreach from this centre, there are 250 persons in open employment in various factories, restaurants, launderettes, car washes, ceramic making factories and so on in the city and outer city areas in the vicinity. Sr Geraldine also has a home care team of 5 staff who have 350 families of persons with disabilities in their care.
Sporting events, hiking and excursions are organised for weekends to provide leisure activities and social integration for these people. She explained that many of these people do not know how to enjoy recreational times and that parents worry about allowing them out on their own.
Sr Gerardine has some 90 full time staff and 120 part-time. The many lives bettered immeasurably and potential realised by special needs children and adults through this work runs into the many hundreds. You don’t have to have faith or religion to admire the caring facilities that one woman, with the help of so many people, has built, working now as a lone religious, far in time and space from her native Limerick and the farm she left almost four decades ago. What she can continue to do and indeed improve on depends very much on voluntary funds.
Donations can be made via the following bank account:
St. Columban’s social Welfare Corporation. 성골롬반사희복지법인
Bank. Nyong Hup 농협 689ㅡ01ㅡ171908
Ambassador of Ireland