▲ Among the many services the Red Cross provides in Jeju are free lunches, which are served each Thursday and Friday to a mostly elderly clientele. Photo courtesy The Republic of Korea National Red Cross Jeju Chapter
According to Jeju traditional lore, there are three things the island is without -- beggars, gates and thieves. However, the Red Cross foundation on the island reports that more than 100 people show up each week for their free meals program, provided every Thursday and Friday.
Local coordinator, Kim Dong Seok, said that unlike Seoul and other larger cities, it can be difficult to locate homeless people on Jeju but they do exist. Kim said that 70 percent of those who dine at the facility each week are elderly, but the remainder includes individuals in their 30s and 40s. More and more young people are taking advantage of the free meals because of the poor economy and job losses on the island. Where the job losses are felt the most he does not know, because he doesn’t feel comfortable asking his diners.
By 9 a.m. people are already seated in the Red Cross cafeteria, waiting for lunch. By midday there are lines outside the door. Meals are also delivered to the homes of clients who are physically handicapped or otherwise unable to make it to the cafeteria. Seventy-nine-year-old Ha Ok Cha said she arrives early to ensure she gets a seat. She said there is no jostling for places, but she had rather not take her chances waiting outside when she can sit with the new friends she has made through the service while waiting for her meal. Ha referred to the cafeteria as a restaurant, then said it is actually better because she can eat as much as she wants.
Kim Gi Sun, 81, sat across the cafeteria with three of her friends, smiling in anticipation of her upcoming treat. She has been coming to the center for a year. Both women have nothing but praise for the facility and are grateful for its existence. Most of the elderly clientele come not only for the food but for the company. Kim said she lost her entire family a year ago, but preferred not to discuss the details.
Others among the elderly guests have families that have either moved to the mainland or whose lives involve busy schedules and leave little time for their elderly relatives. Coordinator Kim Dong Seok said the goal of the free lunch program is to ensure that these individuals are not going without food, but also to provide them with community.
The facility also sponsors an annual mass kimchi preparation event. Kim said the facility can provide kimchi to as many as 1,000 households thanks to donations from the Jeju Free International City Development Center and businesses across the island. On Nov. 25, around 50 staff and 150 volunteers convened at the Jeju Red Cross and turned about 3,000 heads of cabbage and other ingredients into kimchi to be distributed to low-income families and the independent elderly.
He said that a couple of years ago, when he started working at the facility, it was difficult to get people or businesses to donate. Often, he just received a flat, “No,” to his request. Things are changing and the idea of charitable giving is spreading, he said, though not quickly enough. Kim said Jeju is different from communities on the mainland, such as Seoul and other large cities. While the people of the island are very giving, they are selective as to whom they are generous. Families from other cultures or backgrounds are often left to fend for themselves.
More than anything, Kim said, the elderly just want to be a part of society and to have someone to talk to occasionally. The volunteers at the facility are each assigned one elderly individual whom they phone each week to check they are not lonely, and whom they will visit in person if necessary.
Red Cross in Jeju is in constant need of volunteers and donations. Kim said the foundation focuses on three levels -- education, volunteering and youth activities. Unlike in Seoul, he said there are currently no foreign volunteers and he encouraged any who are interested to stop by and check things out. On the mainland, he said, often groups of 20 or so foreigners arrive together at Red Cross facilities to provide support for one another with language difficulties.
The Red Cross first arrived on Jeju Island in 1949. There are 50 other Red Cross locations spread throughout the peninsula.
If you would like to help by volunteering, Red Cross Jeju can be contacted on 064-758-3501~3. There is at least one staff member who speaks English but you may need help from a Korean speaker if he is not available.
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