To be a good volunteer, use your brain (Korea Times, December 5, 2012)

By Casey Lartigue, Jr.

There is probably an unwritten rule that a celebrity offering to do volunteer work for a good cause should immediately be embraced. Well, that’s not what happened to Jeong So-dam, the glamorous Korean cable TV announcer when our paths crossed on Nov. 29.

Ms. Jeong was the MC of an event about American political philosophy hosted by the Association for Economic Evolution. During my speech about American libertarianism since 1940, I discussed my volunteer work for North Korean refugees. After the speech, Jeong approached me, asking how she could help.

I gave her the same tough love I give to potential volunteers by asking: “Who are you?” After all, if you are Bill Gates, then open your wallet. If you speak four languages, then help with translation work.

So I first stress to potential volunteers: Use your brain. Tell us about your skills and interests so together we can figure out your initial role.  Jeong was good-natured about it, rather than calling security to have me escorted out, first saying she could teach Korean and offer emotional support.

Still probing, I asked her, “What do you like to do?” She thoughtfully listed a few things, then she enthusiastically mentioned that she loved making furniture. She pulled out her phone, proudly showing off photos of furniture she had personally made. With her enthusiasm and kind-heart, I am confident the students will be inspired by her.

I then pushed Jeong on the second thing I tell potential volunteers: Make a commitment. I encourage volunteers to get a host of experiences but to settle on one organization. Some youngsters ― especially Korean students building up their “spec” ― bounce around from soup kitchens, senior citizen centers, orphanages.

All are wonderful but it is hard for them to plan around volunteers who drop in whenever they feel like it. For volunteers, that is not a good way to learn lessons, build up real skills or be an effective volunteer. Jeong committed to volunteer for the school for at least three months even after I warned her that it would take at least two hours in each direction.

Third, as I said at fundraisers for an alternative school for North Korean refugee children: Be strategic about volunteering. When I was an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., I also volunteered with the group DC Parents for School Choice, was a young executive network member of the Washington Scholarship Fund and a board member of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. I was helping educational freedom, especially for low-income families, both at work and volunteer activities.

I ran into a brick wall when I decided to get involved with North Korean refugees. This wasn’t just about debating the president of the board of education ― it is dealing with escapees from a totalitarian country that baffles even world leaders. I took my own advice.

The center of my activity is now Mulmangcho (www.mulmangcho.org) in Yeoju. It is a small alternative school for North Korean children founded by Park Sun-young, the former National Assembly member who is a leading advocate for North Korean refugees. I first met Park back in March when she was holding a hunger strike in front of the Chinese embassy protesting the forced repatriation of North Korean escapees from China to North Korea. After protesting together in both Seoul and Washington D.C., I committed to helping the school she said she was starting.

After I finished my speeches at fundraisers last November 20 and 21 for the school (we raised 1.5 million won and collected more than 1,000 donated items), several potential volunteers approached me. Each of them started the conversation by saying, ``Okay, I won’t ask you how I can help. Here’s what I can do.” A few days later, I had 24 volunteers ready to start immediately, to teach 11 students. Jeong promises to join us.

The writer is a member of the board of trustees of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association in Washington, D.C., the accountability supervisor of NK Hub in Seoul, and the international cooperation adviser to the Mulmangcho School for North Korean refugee children in Yeoju. His email address is cjl@post.harvard.edu.

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