Orphanage volunteer wins Michael Simning award

Orphanage volunteer wins Michael Simning award
Al Barnum poses with children from the Sungbin Orphanage in Gwangju.
PHOTO: Al Barnum

Chosun University English professor Al Barnum has won the first Michael Simning Community Award for his work volunteering at Sungbin Orphanage.

The award was created by a group of Gwangju residents in memory of Simning, a local expat who led volunteering and community events in the city and also started the First Alleyway, a cafe and key meeting point for the city's expat community. It recognises people who have volunteered in the city and contributed to the local community.

Four others were short-listed for the award: Choi Sun-jin, Calen Cygan, Jordan Vanhartingsveldt and Lianne Bronzo.

At an award ceremony at the First Alleyway on Saturday, the five nominees will each receive a Hawaiian shirt ― Simning's favourite item of clothing ― and Barnum will get a monetary award to be donated to the charity of his choice.

Gwangju resident Nancy Harcar decided to set up the annual award last year, after talking with Simning's mother, who visited the city on the anniversary of his death to help set up a scholarship fund for a community in Kenya that she and her son had helped.

"She remarked that she wanted to be able to remember his life and the good things he did," said Harcar. "And for me, I was sad after Mike's death that new folks would never get to meet him, and know all that he had done to make Gwangju a great place to live."

One of Simning's volunteering activities was at Sungbin Orphanage, where he set up a programme that got many local expats, including several nominees, involved in volunteering. It was Barnum's first volunteering activity after coming to Korea in 2008.

"First I noticed (Simning's) sense of humour, second his love and passion for the girls of Sungbin and the girls loved him right back," said Barnum. "I instantly envied him because he could communicate fluently in Korean with the girls."

After Simning decided to focus on other things, the leadership of the programme eventually went to Barnum, who set up the "Adopt a Child for Christmas" campaign in 2010 to give the children gifts during the holiday season.

The programme has been going since then, and although Barnum has since delegated most of his duties at the orphanage, he remains involved there.

Barnum said his drive to help children comes from his background. He said he grew up in a single-parent low income household and was often in trouble.

"Not one teacher ever thought I was worth talking to, so I intimidated everyone by my aggressive and 'didn't care' attitude until I barely graduated from high school," he said. "Once I realised what life was about around age 19, I went to college to become a high school teacher to reach kids like me that others had given up on, I found my mission."

He said patience was the key to helping children.

"It takes time for children to trust you, they want to know if you are consistent or just passing through," he said.

Barnum's prize money will be donated to Haeinsa Temple in Gwangju, whose head monk adopted 20 children and looks after them without state or religious funding.

"Once I visited the temple and saw how energetic, eager and anxious the children were to learn, I wanted to explore ways to help them financially," he said.

He said, "Michael created a lasting legacy with his involvement and passion for Sung Bin Home for Girls, I just pray I did justice to that legacy."

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