By Terri Finch Hamilton, ’83
Reprinted from Centralight magazine, Fall 2014
It's been 60 years, but the memory of the little Korean girl in a threadbare dress, crying in the night, still haunts Neil Kirwan, '61.
He was a 20-year-old soldier stationed in Daegu, South Korea, in 1954 when he drove past her standing by the road on a January night.
The girl was crying.
"She was cold," he recalls, "with nowhere to go."
He and the soldier with him took her to the GI ration car. There was a stove there and food.
"During the two hours we were there, she was warm," he recalls, "and she ate."
After Kirwan found an abandoned boxcar for her to sleep in, he never saw the girl again. But there were many more like her, cold and alone.
"The thought of her, and all the orphans, still haunts me," says Kirwan, now 81 and living in St. Augustine, Florida. "Life without a chance."
Soon, thanks to him, their chances would get better.
After his discharge from the Army, Kirwan went home to Petoskey to look for a job and take night classes offered by CMU. After 18 months, he headed to Mount Pleasant to continue his education on campus.
But he kept thinking about the hungry, orphaned kids in Korea. Kirwan used to take a dozen oranges from the mess hall in the morning and toss them to hungry children from his Army Jeep.
One day he was on campus sipping coffee when he had an idea.
"It just hit me," he recalls. "I asked a friend who was with me, another GI, 'What do you think about all 5,000 of us at CMU adopting an orphanage in Korea?'
"He said, 'It's a good idea.' I thought, 'Now I've got to do something.'"
A member of Student Senate, Kirwan got the Senate on board. Other organizations soon joined in, including the InterFaith Council, the Veterans Club and the International Relations Club.
The groups joined together to form the new Korean Orphanage Committee, chaired by Kirwan.
After some research, they decided to adopt the Mun San Orphanage in the village of Munsan-Ni about 40 miles north of Seoul.
They called the project Central's Chosen Children.
The money started rolling in
The Mun San Orphanage sat on a narrow, crooked street, surrounded by poverty and filth, according to a report from Col. Oran Burns, a former ROTC commander at Central who visited the orphanage for the students and sent back a detailed report.
There were 46 children living there, ages 2 to 16. The buildings where the children lived were like "chicken coops," Burns reported, made of newspaper and mud. Four or five children slept on the floor of each 8-foot by 8-foot room.
They needed everything.
Members of the Korean Orphanage Committee put up posters on campus, got a story published in CM Life and distributed canisters around campus to collect money for the children.
"Then things sprouted like mushrooms," Kirwan recalls. "Nobody I asked to do anything ever said 'No.' They all said, 'What can I do to help?'"
The Flying Chips, a group of student pilots, sponsored airplane rides for donations.
The Vets Club sponsored a greased-pig chasing contest on the football practice field with a $10 prize for the winner. Students paid 50 cents for a chance to catch the pig or 10 cents to watch.
Among the most popular fundraisers: "Smash the Nash," where students paid for a chance to smash an old car with a sledgehammer.
"There was a dance where admission was a penny for each inch around your waist," Kirwan recalls. "And students went door to door in Mount Pleasant, collecting donations.
"Suddenly, everybody seemed to know about it."
Kirwan's cousin, a reporter at the Detroit News, wrote a story about the project. Other news coverage followed, throughout Michigan and the country, all lauding Central for the unique idea.
Central students raised more than $20,000 for the Korean orphans. Their efforts paid for food and clothing, blankets and toys, firewood, three acres of land, a three-story building for eating and sleeping, a cement-block storage shed for food and supplies, a greenhouse to raise flowers to sell, pigs and rabbits for food and resale, seeds for planting, an ox, and a plow.
Students were always eager for reports on "their children," as they called them.
The Korean Ministry of Public Information sent an eight-minute movie showing the "Chosen Children."
Reports also came back from Corn Sow Song, a former resident of the orphanage who often visited to help the orphanage's director, Mrs. Sa Nyo Kang.
One letter he sent on Oct. 28, 1962, noted the October allotment of $350 had arrived on the 11th and was spent on – among other things – six pigs, food and school uniforms. About half the money, he said, was added to a library building fund.
Central's Chosen Children was going strong when Kirwan graduated in 1961. Before he left, he asked good friend and roommate Ray Speigl, '65, to take over as chairman.
"Everybody wanted to do the right thing and help out," recalls Speigl, now 74 and living in Safford, Arizona. "We wanted to try and make the orphanage self-supporting. I don't think any of us had any idea how much of a difference we could make."
"The orphans didn't freeze, and they had something to eat," Kirwan says.
And that was huge, say two former orphans now living successful lives in Korea.
"We'll carry on the gift you've given us"
ByungShik Lim entered the orphanage at age 8 in 1956, separated from his parents during the war. He lived there until he was 13.
Today he owns a stationery store in Kwang Myung, 30 miles from Seoul.
ByungYong Ahn was 5 when he came to the orphanage. He ran away a lot, hoping to find his family. He never did.
Ahn now owns a successful barbecue restaurant in Paju.
Both men, in a recent interview via Skype, shared memories of receiving packages from Central, filled with clothes and food.
"The pastor would say, 'This one came from Michigan.' So we knew about the help," Lim says, through a translator.
Conditions at the orphanage improved, the men say. But once children were old enough to find work and support themselves, they left.
"I did almost every job in hard labor you can think of," Lim says.
He shined shoes, worked at a barbershop and then entered military service, spending three years in Saudi Arabia.
He came home and started a stationery and school supply business with the money he earned in the military. He got married and has a son, a daughter and two grandchildren.
Ahn lived at the orphanage until he was 12 and then headed out, also, shining shoes, selling vegetables on the street, working in restaurants and driving a taxi. He's married and has a 33-year-old son.
"Maybe it was because I grew up in hardship, but when I opened my business, I pledged to give 40 percent of my profits as payback to the community," he says. He regularly serves chicken soup lunches to the poor and the elderly.
"Everyone is doing well," Lim says of the former orphans. "Some are in the transportation business, some are public servants, some went into military service, lots are self-employed. We're all self-reliant and determined – characteristics of an orphan background."
About 20 of the former orphans from the Mun San Orphanage regularly get together in a group called Han-Ma-Um. It means "One Heart."
"It's like a brotherhood without the family," Ahn says. "We meet to see how we're doing, share meals, collect memories."
"To see faces, have a drink, have a conversation," Lim adds. "Not having a biological family, the orphans became family."
The men say they're still grateful for the years of support from CMU students.
"We'll carry on the gift you've given us," Ahn says. "We will continue to support the community and meet people's needs, as much as we're able."
Adds Lim: "We have not forgotten about your support."
A lasting impact on CMU students
By 1969, the campus effort had expanded and students were also supporting a children's home and hospital on Penayong Island. Yet by the mid-1970s, interest in the project had waned. The Campus Veterans Association reported that the Korean Orphanage Committee was "looking for a cause closer to home and more current."
Meanwhile, Neil Kirwan had gotten on with life.
After graduation, he got a job at the Maryknoll magazine, a publication of the Catholic organization that does mission work overseas. He says his work with Central's Chosen Children likely helped him land the job.
He worked there, in New York, for 10 years as a writer and circulation manager. He met his wife, Dorothy, there. They've been married 51 years.
After the magazine, Kirwan spent most of his career as an insurance salesman. These days, he's enjoying retirement with Dorothy in St. Augustine with his two daughters and grandchildren.
Speigl joined the Peace Corps after graduation, heading to Tanzania to teach. He went on to work in social service, specializing in adoptions and foster care before switching to a career in information services. He and his wife, Mary, have been married 40 years and have three children and three grandchildren.
"Being involved in Central's Chosen Children was a key factor in my life – a foundation," Speigl says.
Kirwan, too, says his time helping the Korean orphans changed him.
"Can anybody look at a kid in need and not want to help?" Kirwan asks. "I can't. The experience made me very aware of the need for us to help each other."
Kirwan has a file on Central's Chosen Children, including copies of old newspaper clippings and notes from the orphan committee meetings.
But he doesn't need the files to remember.
"I'll tell you what I like to think to myself," Kirwan muses. "When I die and I get to the golden gates and they won't open, I'm gonna yell, 'Are there any Korean orphans here?' They'll open them for me."