From the May 2016 issue of The Rotarian
Every Tuesday at 1 p.m., students at Andong Yeongmyeong School wait for their Rotarian friends to arrive. Occasionally, they play sports or go on field trips such as attending a baseball game. But the real reason they get together is to work in a greenhouse, planting seeds and harvesting lettuce leaves. Later, they take the tenderly plucked leaves to a restaurant owned by another Rotarian. With the money they earn, the students invest in more seeds and equipment.
The Rotarians from clubs in Andong, 200 kilometers southeast of Seoul, are mentors at the school through a training project for students with autism and intellectual and emotional disabilities that they launched in 2014. The students learn crop cultivation, starting with the fundamentals of growing lettuce indoors, then learning to package and transport crops, and, finally, selling vegetables to businesses around Andong.
The project, a partnership between the school and the Andong Agriculture Technology Center, was supported by a $32,500 global grant from The Rotary Foundation. The Rotarians have funded the construction of the horticultural facilities where the training takes place, financially supported the instruction provided by faculty at the school, and volunteered as mentors for the students and business consultants and monitors for the project.
Their aim is to lay the foundation for students to pursue careers in horticulture and gain financial independence, says project leader Chi-Su Sin. Their accomplishments also boost their confidence in social situations.
“I thought this project would help the students to acquire new skills, but I also learned that watching things grow helps greatly with their emotional stability,” says Sin, a member of the Rotary Club of Andong-Central who has volunteered at the school for more than 15 years. (In 2015, he received an award from Korea’s Ministry of Education for his dedication.) “They see how these plants grow and mature, how each day they grow a little more. Their faces just light up seeing that.”
Just as the program challenges the students to learn new things, Sin says the global grant application process involved a learning curve for him and his fellow Rotarians.
“Global grants were a new concept for us, and no one in our club – indeed, in the whole district – had ever done anything like this with success,” he says. “So a lot of people were opposed to it at first. That skepticism among our members was the biggest challenge.”
O Je Kwon, a volunteer mentor for the program, says he became aware of the value of global grants while serving as secretary of the Rotary Club of Andong-Central in 2013-14. “We knew The Rotary Foundation could provide us with the funds and human resources to carry out large-scale projects that our district could not implement on our own,” he says. “But more than that, we believed that our district had what it takes to carry out successful vocational service.”
The program continues beyond the initial global grant, which trained 38 students and was sponsored by the Rotary clubs of Andong-Central and Tsaotun Central in Taiwan. In 2015, funded through the profits generated from produce sales the year before, 49 students were trained, and in 2016 there are plans to train 45 students. And the district is thinking even bigger. “We’ve been able to successfully carry out this project for our youth,” says past district governor Won-Taek Lee. “But let’s not stop there. In Andong, there are many adults who need support as well.”
Sin concurs. “We’re working to expand the program beyond students and provide vocational training to adults with disabilities,” he says. “We’re working to give them hope for the future and help them feel that they, too, can build an economic foundation for themselves. My hope is that this type of project will keep expanding and bringing great benefits to communities so that we can build a world in which people with disabilities can stand shoulder to shoulder with everyone else.”