Tuesday, June 21, 2011

South Korean Pastor Tends To Unwanted Disabled Children

In a country that prizes physical perfection, Pastor Lee Jong-rak, his eyes opened after caring for his own disabled son, has been taking in unwanted infants, who if not for his drop box would be left in the street.

Reporting from Seoul— The drop box is attached to the side of a home in a ragged working-class neighborhood. It is lined with a soft pink and blue blanket, and has a bell that rings when the little door is opened.

Because this depository isn't for books, it's for babies — and not just any infants; these children are the unwanted ones, a burden many parents find too terrible to bear.

ne is deaf, blind and paralyzed; another has a tiny misshapen head. There's a baby with Down syndrome, another with cerebral palsy, still another who is quadriplegic, with permanent brain damage.

But to Pastor Lee Jong-rak, they are all perfect. And they have found a home here at the ad hoc orphanage he runs with his wife and small staff. It is the only private center for disabled children in South Korea.

"This is a facility for the protection of life," reads a hand-scrawled sign outside the drop box. "If you can't take care of your disabled babies, don't throw them away or leave them on the street. Bring them here."

Since 1998, Lee, now 57, has taken in nearly three dozen children — raised them, loved them, sent them to school. He has changed their diapers, tended to their cries in the middle of the night. Today, he has 21 wards: the youngest a 2-month-old, the oldest 18.

His motivation is painfully personal. Twenty-five years ago, Lee's wife, Chun-ja, gave birth to a baby so disfigured Lee kept the boy from her for a month until he could figure out a way to tell her the unthinkable, explaining only that the child had a serious illness and was rushed to another hospital.

The baby was born with cerebral palsy. A mammoth cyst on his head choked off the blood flow, slowly rendering him brain-damaged. Doctors gave him months to live.

Today he lies on a bed in Lee's home, his legs splayed at impossible angles, his feet turned back inward. Eyeing the room impassively, he occasionally lets out a snort or sigh, as his parents regularly vacuum his saliva through a tracheal hole in his throat. They call him Eun-man, which means full of God's grace.

He plays the role of emotional touchstone for an orphanage in peril: Health officials have ordered Lee to close his drop box, saying it encourages parents to abandon their babies.

Authorities say Lee has no formal training and not enough space for his wards, only two of whom are not handicapped; they were left by single mothers. Lee has no license, but for years he had operated underneath the radar. Now he worries he will lose the government funds he receives as the children's legal guardian; the money keeps him in operation, along with donations from local firms and private benefactors.

Orphanage supporters say authorities are missing the big picture. Though there are other institutional facilities nationwide for disabled children, they say, no salaried caregiver could match Lee's compassion and paternal touch.

"Rather than look at what he can bring, they focus on what he doesn't have," said Peter A. Dietrich, an orphanage volunteer. "The enormity of his mission hits you between the eyes. I don't know anyone who goes there for the first time and doesn't tear up."
Read More from LA Times

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