MIDDLEBURY — The Addison County Parent/Child Center’s programs helping young parents have long been replicated in similar centers throughout Vermont and the nation.
Now the center — celebrating its 30th birthday — may see some of its techniques exported to South Korea, a nation struggling to even acknowledge, let alone lend a hand to, unwed mothers.
A delegation organized by the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network (KUMSN) made a pilgrimage of sorts to the Parent/Child Center this week, taking notes of how the Middlebury-based center has become successful in serving unwed parents and getting them on the path to self-sufficiency.
The visit comes just a few months after an American delegation — which included former Parent/Child Center Director Cheryl Mitchell — took a similar tour of South Korea.
The KUMSN is an organization devoted to increasing awareness of the plight of Korean women who have children out of wedlock. These women, explained KUMSN founder and Director Dr. Richard Boas, are considered virtual outcasts for what many in Korean society consider to be the shameful act of bringing a child into the world without two parents. The South Korean government provides few resources to train and care for unwed mothers and their children; consequently, many women who conceive out of wedlock choose abortion — even though it is illegal — rather than bring their babies to term in an environment where they will be stigmatized. Other women put their babies up for adoption, and the United States remains one of the primary destinations for such Korean babies.
Boas, whose family adopted a Korean child 22 years ago, noted that 70 percent of unwed Korean women who give birth put their babies up for adoption, compared to 2 percent for the same population in the United States.
“This is in a progressive democracy, which unfortunately stigmatizes unwed moms, among other groups, and creates a difficult life for them and their children,” Boas said.
All of this is occurring, ironically, at a time when Korea’s birthrate is one of the lowest in the world. The World Health Organization estimates the nation’s birthrate at 1.2 per Korean woman.
The KUMSN and other advocates for Korean unwed moms have been looking at other countries to see how they treat this vulnerable segment of society. To that end, the Korean delegation, including Boas, was in town this week taking notes at the Parent/Child Center.
“Vermont has, starting with Addison County, modeled the parent-child center, support for unwed moms and support for kids,” Boas said.
Mitchell guided the delegation through an informational tour on Monday and Tuesday, that also included stops at the Vermont Community Foundation and the Mary Johnson Children’s Center.
The group — which included representatives of the Korean Women’s Development Institute — traveled to Montpelier on Wednesday to get a sense of state programs for unwed moms before heading to New York. There, the group was scheduled to take their case to representatives of the Korean consulate.
Boas said the group learned a lot during its few short days in Vermont, gleaning particularly interesting information from Parent/Child Center clients. Those young moms related how the center’s programs had helped them — and in many cases, the young dads — to bring their babies into the world, while providing them with support and job training to better meet the challenges of parenthood.
“The discussions here have been very productive so far in terms of speaking with the young moms who this center has served,” Boas said. “That has been a real eye-opener for Koreans, because moms usually don’t come forward and talk about their experiences,” Boas said.
MOTHERS TOUGH IT OUT
The visitors noted that unlike in Korea, U.S. society does not confer a stigma on unwed mothers. And they were also impressed with the extent to which federal, state and local governments offer programs to single women with children.
“In Korea, for unwed moms, you find very little governmental support — financially, educationally, medically and for housing,” said Boas, who is based in Connecticut but makes frequent trips to Korea. “Basically, mothers are in general, pretty much forced into the position of either toughing it out with their children, or giving up their children. Unfortunately, this has been the sad path of least resistance.”
Members of the delegation stressed they did not expect Korea to be able to duplicate the Parent/Child Center — at least not anytime soon. But the visit gave the visitors confidence that Korea can at least take some baby steps in elevating conditions for unwed mothers.
“For me, this is a demonstration that this can be done, so that I can go to Korea and say, ‘You know, it’s been done in the States, I hope that Koreans, in their own way, do what they can to treat all its citizens equally. Here is the Vermont example, what can you, in Korea, do, based on the example in the States?’”
Some progress is being made — at least in Seoul, the nation’s capital.
Ms. Han Man Soon is director of AeRanWan, a residential support program for pregnant and parenting women.
Thanks largely to donated funds, and with very little government support, AeRanWan’s services include:
• Assistance for unwed mothers in pre- and post-natal care, including counseling, planning for the future and education programs.
• Supports for young women who have given their children up for adoption, training them for employment.
• Housing for single mothers who have a job, but do not make a livable wage.
• Crisis intervention, parenting education, mentoring and self-help group counseling for unmarried moms.
Han explained that AeRanWan was established during the 1960s, but its mission has changed over the years. In its early days, it primarily helped women leave prostitution and evolved into an organization helping unwed mothers. One of the early directors of the program was Sue Rice, who coincidentally now lives in Lincoln. Han and Rice were able to connect this week and compare notes.
“I was deeply impressed,” Han said of her encounter with Rice and her husband, the Rev. Randy Rice, who served as missionaries in South Korea more than 30 years ago. They were both recently honored by the Korean government for their service.
“I admire them and their lives,” Han said.
Sue Rice was also happy to meet the Korean delegation, and her AeRanWan successor.
“I’m sure they will be taking many ideas back,” she said. “It is a different world (in Korea) than when I was there.”
MODEST GOV’T SUBSIDY
Just like the Parent/Child Center, AeRanWan’s goal is to help its young clients become self-sufficient. Han noted that the Korean government provides a modest subsidy — around $600 per month — to unwed mothers on which to subsist. But clients lose these modest benefits if they make more than $850 per month. Since housing is very expensive in Seoul, the government subsidy does not cover even basic necessities.
With that in mind, AeRanWan tries to fill in some of the expense gaps by providing housing and other supports so the unwed moms can keep their jobs and learn skills that will allow them to move up the income ladder.
AeRanWan has been able to help unwed women dramatically buck the trend of abortions in Korea. More than 80 percent of the women who enroll in the program elect to raise their children, according to Boas.
Many of those babies are ultimately put up for adoption, with efforts taken to have those children remain in Korea.
Han is often referred to in Korea as “the mother of unwed mothers.” She takes her job very seriously, inspired by her own experiences with motherhood (she has three children) and her Christian faith.
“It is one of my missions from God,” she said of her work at AeRanWan, which she has been pursuing for almost 20 years.
Han eagerly drank in information from her tour of the Parent/Child Center, cultivating ideas to bring back to Korea.
“I envy your country, because of the many supports from the federal and state government,” she said. Han took special note of two Parent/Child Center services — an in-house child care center and an alternative education program.
She would like to see similar programs developed in her native country.
“I hope Korean government will change (its policies),” Han said.