Saturday, October 24, 2009

South Korean mom claims long lost son

“Mother Alive!!!”
Vernon Newman said he almost fell on the floor when he opened an e-mail and saw this message.
A schoolteacher turned computer programmer, the 49-year-old Exe-ter Township resident said he had been told about a year ago that his mother probably was dead.
Happily adopted by an American family more than 40 years ago, Newman said he started thinking a few years ago about his village in South Korea and the mother who gave him up for adoption so he could have a better life in America.
Newman said he first became homesick in 1999 during a sermon about adoption at his church, the Reading-Kenhorst Boulevard Sev-enth-day Adventist Church.
“It sort of stirred something inside me,” Newman said. “I started to wonder about my mother.
“The feeling grew and eventually I began to feel I had to get back and at least touch the soil that had given me birth.”
Newman said he discussed his longings with his American family, and they agreed he should go back to South Korea.
So, in September 2000, Newman flew to South Korea to search for his mother and the village where he was born.
Despite the help of a South Korean friend he had met on the Inter-net, Kim Kyung Sook, Newman could not find his village or any sign of his mother.
He did, however, learn his birth name was Yun Yun Bong.
Over the years, he said, he had forgotten his native language, his for-mer address and even his mother’s name.
The search continued, and on Dec. 22 he was told his mother was alive and she had never moved, hoping her son would someday find his way home.
“She thinks one day you will hunt for her,” Sook wrote in broken English.
“That’s why she never moved (from) that house,” Sook wrote. “She has been living (in) that house since you left Korea.”
  
The voice of Yun Yun Bong’s teacher droned as the 8-year-old’s mind drifted through an open classroom window into the sunny countryside.
From his desk he could see the mountain that guarded and fed water to the rice patties of his village, Kosan-ri, on the outskirts of Uijongbu, South Korea.
In his daydream, America lay somewhere beyond the mountain — a gentle breeze away.
The recurring dream — a wish really — abruptly ended when some-one rapped on the schoolhouse window.
“Hey, do you want to go to America?" asked his friend, Oh Dae Il, try-ing frantically to get his attention.
Ohdale, as Yun Bong calls him, was 11 and determined to go to Amer-ica.
Sons of American GIs and South Korean mothers, the two boys were among a growing number of Amerasian children in postwar Korea who were neglected, abused and even murdered in Uijongbu.
“We both had always considered America our real home,” Yun Bong said.
Yun Bong stood up and immediately attracted his teacher’s attention.
“What is it, Yun Bong?” the teacher asked.
“I am going to America,” Yun Bong replied.
The teacher called Yun Bong to the front of the room and told the children in the class to congratulate him and wish him well on his trip.
There was no further inquiry by school officials, Yun Bong said.
Yun Bong, who had been staying with friends because his mother of-ten had to go out of town to find work, said he grabbed the few belong-ings he had.
“I left with Ohdale and we went on the bus to the orphanage in Seoul to be adopted by Americans,” Yun Bong recalled.
  
Newman said he first began looking for his mother by searching for his village on the Internet. He said he had no solid clues.
“My mother had come to see me at the orphanage to make sure I was OK, and the day before I left for America she gave me a picture of her and put her name and address on the back of it,” Newman said.
However, before the boys were loaded on the plane to America they were given new clothing and their first pair of leather shoes.
“I had slipped her picture into the pocket of my old overalls, and it was gone,” Newman said. “Eventually I forgot her name, my address, everything.”
While searching the Internet, Newman said he met Sook, who offered to help.
When Newman went to South Korea in 2000, she was his guide, but they failed to find the village or his mother.
“I remembered the mountain and the farms all around,” Newman said. “The mountain appeared larger to me, but the fields were all gone. The whole area was developed.”
Unable to find any landmarks, Newman said his only victory came on his last day in South Korea when he found his name and his mother’s name — Yun Soon Ja — on records at the orphanage.
“I thought, at least I found her name,” Newman said.
  
After Newman left South Korea, Sook continued searching the vil-lages around Uijongbu and eventually contacted an old friend who worked in a municipal office.
They located a village and a woman they thought could be Newman’s mother. They visited the woman and learned she was his mother.
Sook immediately rushed home and e-mailed Newman.
Newman said he continued to correspond with Sook, learning more about his mother and his village.
Sook eventually took her cellular phone to Soon Ja’s house, and the mother and son spoke to each other for the first time in more than 40 years.
“My mother was doing a lot of crying,” Newman recalled.
He said they discussed plans for him to visit his mother by himself at first, then make a return trip with his family.
“I told my mother that I loved her very much and that I missed her,” Newman said.
“She told me that she is 69, and that my birthday is on Jan. 24,” New-man said. “She said her name is Yun Soon Ja.
“And in our village she is known as Yun Bong’s mother.”

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Only the good die young, my brother was one

They say you can't pick your family. My late brother-in-law David had a great personality.
He was just incapable of conformity.
As a result, light switches he has installed all go down for "on" and up for "off." Most of our faucets go left for "cold," right for "hot."
He was also not a big fan of preventive maintenance. As a result, going out on his boat was always an adventure.
David, rest his soul, seemed to enjoy having things break down on him.
Having to fix things on the fly was his forte. Regular maintenance was too ponderous to even conceive.
"Where's the fun in that?" he'd ask.
It drove me nuts.
One time we put his boat in at Corson's Inlet, which is between Ocean City and Strathmere, N.J.
He loved to go to the Deauville Inn, which was on the Strathmere side of the inlet. You could pull the boat right up onto the beach.
On this day it was a little too cloudy for the beach so David, my son Elliott, who was about 7 at the time, and I were just going to go for a ride and maybe a little fishing.
That was the plan. Before I knew it, we were headed out through the breakwater and into the open ocean in a 16-footer that had a spotty performance record at best.
I lashed Elliott into a life vest as the theme song to "Gilligan's Island" played in my head.
We skipped along the rolling waves like a cigarette boat running from the Coast Guard.
Sure enough, we weren't 10 blocks up the Ocean City shoreline when the engine began to sputter.
Minutes later we were dead in the water. Seems Uncle Dave, as Elliott called him, forgot to mention the connector on his fuel hose was shot.
As we floated along on the waves the boy started asking questions.
"What's that?" he asked, pointing toward shore.
"That's Ocean City," I said.
"What's out there?" Elliott asked, pointing eastward.
"France," I said, eyeballing David.
"Relax," David replied as he jury-rigged a new clamp out of some of the flotsam and jetsam scattered on the deck.
David died suddenly when he was just 40 years old. It was almost four years ago.
Once or twice a year I'll accidentally scald myself while washing my hands in mom's kitchen.
And I'll smile and think I couldn't have picked a better brother-in-law.

City truancy points up ongoing problems with youth aid agency where aid is optional

George Kovarie, director of the Berks County Children and Youth Services agency, changed his mind.

Kovarie said his agency will now accept truancy cases directly from district courts and the Reading School District and will handle cases of truants 16 and older.

A month earlier, Kovarie said his agency would not accept referrals from District Judge Wally Scott if there were fines included because he wasn't running a collection agency for the Reading School District. He also said he would not accept truancy referrals directly from the district. And Kovarie said he would not handle truants 16 or over because it didn't make financial sense.

Scott's Coke-bottle glasses steamed up at the county's first truancy summit in August.

"I don't know how you still have a job," Scott said to Kovarie.

Lest we forget, Kovarie is the guy who denied his agency was supervising 16-month-old Maxwell Fisher, who was raped and murdered by Percy Perez, boyfriend of Maxwell's crack-addicted mother, April R. Fisher.

Kovarie also is the one who said it wasn't his fault that more than 1,100 truancy cases referred to his agency by Wally Scott were put in a box and ignored.

Berks County Commissioner Christian Y. Leinbach said he read about the 1,100 neglected truancy cases and wanted answers.

President Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl summed up the committee's work thus far.

"It's amazing how much more you can do when you bring everyone together in one room," Schmehl said. "People can't say stuff that's not true because somebody's there to call them on it. And people hear straight from the lips of other people what they're willing to do and not do."

Truancy is important. Studies show crime in most cities occurs overnight. In Reading, most crime occurs between noon and 3 p.m. Reading's truancy rate is number two in the state behind Philadelphia.

Temperatures in the room last week had cooled significantly since the August meeting.

I'm still not sure Leinbach will get his answers, but something or somebody changed George Kovarie's mind.

Soldier's daughter holds hands, breaks hearts

Abby Bennethum of Laureldale is pregnant with her third child.

She says she got pregnant back in June or July just before her husband, U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Brett Bennethum, deployed to Iraq with the 733rd Transportation Company, based in Reading.

"I've heard of deployment babies, but I never thought I'd be having one," Abby said.

If Abby's daughter Paige, who turned 4 last week, is any indication, Abby is going to have her hands full.

Abby was wrestling with her second daughter, Lena, 10 months, when I spoke to her.

Staff Sgt. Bennethum got a four-day pass just before the 733rd deployed in July, and Abby bundled the kids into the car drove down to Fort Dix, N.J., to pick him up and spend some quality time before he left for Iraq for a one-year tour of duty.

Staff Sgt. Bennethum and his men are transporting supplies and soldiers back and forth in Iraq.

Abby said she could tell me what part of Iraq her husband is in, but then she'd have to kill me.

When Abby and the kids got to the base, Staff Sgt. Bennethum unbelted Paige and lifted her out of the car. Almost immediately his commanding officer ordered the soldiers to fall in.

"Gotta go," Staff Sgt. Bennethum said as he joined his fellow soldiers in formation.

What he didn't realize was that Paige was hot on his heels.

When he got into formation, Paige grabbed onto his right hand and wouldn't let go.

"I called to her a couple of times, but she wouldn't budge," Abby said. "I don't know if the officers didn't see her because they were in the back row, or they simply didn't say anything about her being there."

"She just wouldn't let go of him," she said.

I'd like to think Staff Sgt. Bennethum's commanding officer saw Paige and decided that her being there was just fine.

Abby's third child is scheduled to arrive in March.

Staff Sgt. Bennethum will still be in Iraq.

It's going to be the first time he wasn't there for the birth of one of his children.

Abby said she's exploring video-conferencing and other options.

"I know some of the families are using Skype (an Internet-based video phone service) but I haven't been able to do anything like that because our computer isn't working right," Abby said.

So, if you're reading this on, Staff Sgt. Bennethum, the girls say hello.

Update: 10/7/2009 2:07:00 PM

If a picture paints a thousand words it can also inspire and break hearts.

I felt at once inspired and heart broken when I first saw the photo of 4-year-old Paige Bennethum defying military tradition to stand with her father and hold his hand as he stood in formation preparing to deploy to Iraq with the U.S. Army Reserve's 733rd Transportation Company of Reading.

It ran with my Kelly's Korner column in the Reading Eagle.

Staff Sgt. Brett M. Bennethum of Laureldale said it may have been the proudest moment of his life.

In an e-mail from his base in Iraq, he also revealed that it wasn't the first time that Paige has broken with Army tradition.

"When we began the mobilization process I was briefing the new soldiers and as soon as I left the podium she pushed a chair up to it and started telling everyone to listen up and do things," Staff Sgt. Bennethum wrote.

The thought of the little girl in the gingham sundress barking commands to the soldiers conjures memories of Shirley Temple in "The Little Princess".

"She went up to one of the other soldiers and said 'get your hands out of your pockets.' It was pretty funny and cute," he said. "She loves the army."

I've tried twice to write about that photo, but still can't do it justice.

Updated 10/08/09

I’ve heard the stereotypes about Berks Countians being cheap.
They throw nickels around like manhole covers, have deep pockets and short arms, even water won’t trickle from their hands, are a few sayings I’ve heard.
Well, I’m here to tell you that Berks residents are some of the most generous folks I’ve met.
Take the case of the Bennethum family of Laureldale.
We ran a photo of 4-year-old Paige Bennethum holding her father’s hand as he stood in ranks waiting to deploy to Iraq.
At the very end of the item, I wrote that Paige’s mother, Abby Bennethum, told me her husband, Staff Sgt. Brett M. Bennethum, would be in Iraq until July and that he was going to miss the birth of their third child.
The Bennethums have a second daughter, Lena, 10 months.
Abby also mentioned she wanted to set up some kind of computer video conference so her husband could see the baby when it is born, but that her home computer wasn’t cooperating.
Well, that’s all it took to open the floodgates.
I came in Tuesday morning to about 30 e-mails and phone calls from folks commenting on the picture of Paige holding her dad’s hand as he stood in formation and offering to either fix or help replace the Bennethums’ home computer.
Abby sent me an e-mail Wednesday morning reporting that a Philadelphia news crew had been out to the house and that she’s getting request calls and e-mails from all over the county and the country, for that matter.
"It has been very crazy around here and I’m kind of in shock that a simple picture of a little girl that loves her daddy has made national news," Abby wrote.
Being a mother of two, pregnant with what Abby calls a deployment baby, and with a husband in Iraq with the U.S. Army Reserve, 733rd Transportation Company of Reading, is no picnic.
"There are some things that just have to be done and I do them without ever thinking it is a big deal," Abby said. "It’s astonishing to me that it has taken the kindness of strangers to make me see the significance, importance and difficulty of doing what I am doing."
You’ve heard the stereotypes.
What say you?