FACES of KOREA: 125 cm Tall Tiny Angel Jang Soon-Ok

by Kiki Fastino, 13/05/2012

Jang Soon-Ok (장순옥) is the only child of Jang Chun Sang (장춘상) who distinguished himself as a soldier during the Korean War. He gave his life in the battle called “Gum hwa Ji Gu,” on December 3rd, 1953. Her mother, devastated by this, decided to leave her daughter at an orphanage. As bad as an orphanage could be, she wanted Jang Soon Ok to have a better life than she thought she could provide. It was her mother's fervent hope for her, but it also meant that Soon-Ok had to suffer her youth and consequently, much of her adult life, without parents.

To add to her challenges, Soon-OK was born with spondylitis, a condition of the spine. The disease limits mobility and causes pain as the inflamed vertebral column of the spine slowly fuses together over time. She was truly dealt a hand from the darker places of life starting from birth. These challenges would make the strongest of humanity want to hide in a desolate corner and stay there. But not Jang Soon-Ok. Despite her own disability, she has been dedicated to helping disabled people all of her life.

She grew up in the National Children’s Protection center, where she remained until 1969. At age 17, carrying only a small bag containing all of her worldly possessions, she departed for Seoul. Her first job was at a sewing factory. She was poor and lived hand-to-mouth. This is also when she began helping other disabled individuals. She felt as though it was her calling to help people, who came from the same place she did. She wanted to do anything and everything she could to improve their quality of life.

After 11 more years of hardship, her life brightened up significantly when she was 28. She was invited by a pastor to eat jajangmyeon at a restaurant. To her surprise, he proposed to her. She was overjoyed by their engagement. It was a dream come true. Very few men have the courage to look past a woman's disability and ask her hand in marriage. After marrying, her life became filled with more hope and she took an even firmer stance in helping disabled individuals.

Shortly after she married, she had the incredible fortune of reuniting with her mother again. She was so happy. Even though her mother had abandoned her as a small child, Soon-Ok never held any resentment or other negative feelings toward her mother.

Just as things were starting to look up in her life, Soon-Ok was hit with another blow. Her daughter was born with a developmental disability. Soon-Ok blamed herself and considered suicide. In the end, she didn’t give up. She knew she had been through so much and that meant she could get through this as well. She had made a firm commitment in her heart that she would help disabled people all of her life. Now that her own child was disabled, she realized she was bound to this promise like never before.

With that commitment, Jang Soon-Ok started the Angel House in 1993 even though she had no money. It would become a residence for disabled people with no one to turn to. At its beginning on October 22nd, the Angel House had only two rooms. She worked hard with her husband to raise money. They did things such as delivering milk and selling bean sprouts to make meager sums of money to help support others. On top of trying to earn money for her Angel House family, she also prepared their meals and took care of their medical expenses. The first Angel House residence was eventually designated  a green belt area by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, which meant the land was zoned for agriculture and was no longer a residential area. The home had to move.

In the meantime, she had started receiving support from the community. She had been mentioned in many TV programs and newspapers in Korea (for example this article in the Korea Herald). The more recognition she received through various media outlets, the more help she received in the form of volunteers and donations. She has come to be known as the "125 cm Tall Tiny Angel." So after gaining publicity and receiving help, she was able to buy a large house in Goyangsi Dukyangu. Now, the Angel House has about 50 disabled residents. It is unique, as it serves people of all ages with various disabilities. All residents from the Angel House call her “Mother.” It is a well deserved name, as she treats them all as her own children.

"If I was not a disabled individual, maybe I wouldn't help other disabled people. I am disabled myself. I know what they feel. I know what they need. My disabled daughter is one of the main reasons why I started the Angel House." - Jang Soon-Ok

Jang Soon-Ok depends on charitable donations and help, like our volunteer groups, to keep the Angel House running. Different groups visit and volunteer at the Angel House every weekend. We visit The Angel House on the first and the third Saturdays of every month. Each volunteer is asked to donate 10,000 won to cover the cost of food for the day. The remainder of the money is donated to the Angel House to benefit the residents. The volunteers are responsible for cleaning the facilities, doing laundry, cooking food, and providing basic personal hygiene for the residents. After the work is finished, they eat, talk, and play/socialise with the residents.

About the author: Kiki Fastino is a member of the Angel House volunteer Group. For more information or to join the volunteer group, see the groups FB page or contact Kiki at kikihero@gmail.com

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