Liahona _ 1992 _ October
Caring for Korea's Children
By Shirleen Meek Saunders
Shirleen Meek Saunders, "Whang Keun-Ok: Caring for Korea's Children,"
Tambuli, Oct 1992, 32
Thirty frightened girls packed their meager belongings in their scarves and
trudged through the streets of Seoul, South Korea, to the home of Whang Keun-Ok.
The house wasn't really big enough to hold so many people, and the girls didn't
know what life would hold outside the comparative security of the orphanage
where they had grown up. But they wanted to follow the woman they loved and
trusted like a mother. They also wanted to participate in the church her example
had led them to: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The pilgrimage on that November night in 1969 marked the beginning of Sister
Whang's Tender Apples Home_only one of the charitable projects which she
considers her life's mission.
A Dream of Serving
Sister Whang's dream of serving began much earlier, when she was a young girl
in Japanese-occupied Korea. A devout Presbyterian, Whang Keun-Ok worked on a
farm by day, and by night prayed that she might be able to go to school so that
she could work for God. She hoped to study medicine, because her people were
dying from lack of proper health care. But because of the subordinate role women
occupied in Korean society, this seemed an impossible goal.
In time, however, her prayers were answered. She was able to attend junior
high school in Jeryung and in Seoul, working at the same time so she could pay
her tuition. She studied hard and was an honor student. After graduation, she
enrolled in nursing school.
But life was difficult in her country. Poverty was widespread, and the Korean
people were not allowed to speak their own language or practice their cultural
customs. Sister Whang herself was expelled from school for not worshipping the
Japanese emperor. Because of such persecution, Whang Keun-Ok and several friends
made an oath to dedicate their lives to making sure others wouldn't have to
endure the same struggles. Later, after Korea won its independence, they
converted that oath to caring for those who had suffered in the wars that
ravaged Korea_particularly the children.
When the Allied Forces liberated Korea on 15 August 1945, Sister Whang
remembers that "every creature, even trees and mountains, seemed to joy for the
freedom that we had fought for for a long time." The joy didn't last long. The
country was divided; Communists controlled the north part of Korea, and many
people tried to escape to the south. Sister Whang got out of North Korea on the
last train that left before the fence between North and South Korea went up. She
has not seen her family since that day. She immediately began working in refugee
camps, teaching the children and caring for those who were hungry and cold.
A Work of Mercy
"I prayed for my solemn mission," she says. "I knew I wanted to help as many
poor people as possible, even though I didn't think I had the ability, skill, or
power. In order to do that, I knew that I would have to sacrifice worldly
possessions, and I knew that I must always fortify myself spiritually."
Sister Whang's work in the camps led her to change her career from nursing to
teaching. But after six years, in November 1958, she decided that if she wanted
to fulfill her goal to help the poor, she needed more education. Her minister
encouraged her to apply for an exchange program at the University of California
at Berkeley. She was accepted. Taking the money she had saved from teaching and
the promise of a paid sabbatical from her school, she enrolled.
Soon after she arrived in the U.S., Whang Keun-Ok met two Korean students
from Brigham Young University who were working at Berkeley for the summer. They
encouraged her to go to Provo, Utah. When she visited the BYU campus in the fall
of 1959, she fell in love with the mountains and was impressed by the Latter-day
Saints' faith. She spent the next three years there, studying social work.
Shortly after she returned to Korea in June 1962, she located the missionaries
and was baptized.
In 1965, Sister Whang was appointed superintendent of Song Jook Orphanage.
Jini Roby, who lived in the orphanage from the time she was eleven until she was
fourteen, remembers that Sister Whang "was always scurrying in and out, in and
out. But she always had a smile. She knew all of our names and what we were
doing, and she would ask about our specific situations."
Songs of Hope
Less than two years into Sister Whang's administration, Stan Bronson arrived
on the scene. A native of Blanding, Utah, Stan was stationed at the 8th U.S.
Army base in Seoul and wanted to spend his off-duty hours doing worthwhile
projects. He decided helping children would be just the thing. When he inquired
about orphanages in the area, Church members referred him to Sister Whang.
When Stan_who is six feet, four inches tall_first met Sister Whang, he was
struck by her air of dignity and self-assurance. But he was even more impressed
by how comfortable she made him feel. "She has a wonderful spirit about her," he
says. "She's dedicated, sweet, polite_one of those people who you know are
sincerely interested in you."
Stan told her he could play the guitar and that he would like to come and
teach the children some songs. "I went out a few days later, all proud of myself
and ready to lift their spirits," Stan remembers. "But Sister Whang said,
'Before you sing, Brother Bronson, the children have prepared something for
you.' For the next half hour or so I listened to the most beautiful music_and I
felt pretty small."
Stan organized the girls into a choir and taught them songs in addition to
those they already knew. " 'Give,' Said the Little Stream" became one of their
favorites, because Sister Whang and Stan taught them that they all had something
they could share, no matter how small. Stan (whom the girls called Daddy Big
Boots because of his large feet) and the girls began performing at U.S. military
bases, and that autumn they recorded an album, Daddy Big Boots and the Song
Jook Won Girls.
"The musical group lifted the kids so much," Stan recalls. "It took them from
being considered surregi people_which means trash_and made them
celebrities. They had a record album, they were singing on national television,
and the U.S. ambassador and the South Korean president were making a fuss over
Sister Whang was eager to have the choir succeed; she hoped to use the money
the girls earned from their appearances to build a school for them and for other
poor children who couldn't pay tuition. Stan says she was "a public relations
"For example, when the record was released, she told me that we were having a
party at the high school to announce it. She said we were inviting President
Park Chung Hee, the president of South Korea; U.S. Ambassador William J. Porter;
and General Charles H. Bonesteel, the head of the United Nations command. 'How
are you going to get guys like that to come?' I asked. She just laughed. 'Well,
in President Park's invitation I told him that Ambassador Porter and General
Bonesteel were invited. In General Bonesteel's, I said President Park and
Ambassador Porter were invited. And in Ambassador Porter's, I told him the
others had been invited.' The ambassador and his wife came, and so did the
general's wife. President Park, who was out of town, sent a top aide."
In the meantime, the girls had learned that Stan was a Latter-day Saint.
"Some of us had never heard of Mormons before, and some of us thought they were
pagans," says Jini. "But the only thing that seemed weird about Stan was that he
was so tall. One day we said to him, 'You're such a nice person. It's hard to
believe you're Mormon.'
" 'Why?' he asked. 'Your superintendent is a Mormon.' "
Jini was translating for the group, and she remembers sitting there stunned
as the other girls begged her to tell them what Stan had said. Since the
orphanage was sponsored by another religion, Sister Whang had agreed not to
discuss her beliefs. The girls had known she was Christian, but that was all.
From the animated reaction, Stan knew he had said something he shouldn't
have. But it was too late. The girls started asking Sister Whang about her
church. When the orphanage's sponsoring religion found out, authorities told
Sister Whang she would either have to convert to their church or find a new job.
Tender Apples Home
It was then that Sister Whang decided to start an orphanage of her own_the
Tender Apples Home. Those girls who were interested in the Church received
permission to come and live with her.
Funding the orphanage was a constant challenge. Stan worked in the United
States to raise money and find sponsors for the girls, and he says Sister Whang
was constantly trying to find financial supporters. "She was good at opening
people's hearts and getting them to believe in her work," he reports. "I think
it was because she was so sincere."
Eugene Till, who served as president of the Korea Seoul Mission from 1974 to
1977, believes that Sister Whang's persistence also played a major role. "She
would tell you what she needed, and she would accept nothing less than total
fulfillment," he says. "She never took her eye off a goal until it was
accomplished. You can understand that kind of determination when a person is
going to gain something from her work. But when the results of Sister Whang's
efforts came_clothing, money, food_she didn't keep any of it for herself."
Equally as important as supporting her girls temporally was giving them
opportunities to feel the Spirit. Jessica Lyon Ohn spent three years in the
Tender Apple Home, beginning in January 1975. She remembers that days started
for the girls at 6:00 a.m.. with hymn singing, prayer, and
scripture study. Sister Whang got up before the girls so she could pray and
study the scriptures, then stoke the fires so the house would be warm when the
girls woke up. Monday evenings were set aside for family home evening, and
Sister Whang made sure the girls had money for bus fare so they could attend
church each Sunday.
Sister Whang taught her girls to help spread the gospel. When President Till
arrived in Korea in 1974, he learned from a survey that only 10 percent of the
people in Seoul were aware of the name of the Church. During his three years as
mission president, he and his missionaries concentrated on changing that. With
Sister Whang's permission, President Till assigned several elders_who formed a
singing group known as "New Horizon"_to work directly with the Tender Apples
choir to put on a musical show that would introduce the people in Korea to the
The group became immensely popular. Through it all, President Till remembers,
Sister Whang "taught the girls that they shouldn't be too proud of themselves,
because they were just doing what they were supposed to do." At the end of three
years, more than 70 percent of the people in Seoul recognized the Church's name.
One of Sister Whang's major goals was to place as many of her girls as
possible with Latter-day Saint families. Of the eighty-four children she brought
up over a period of nearly twenty years, thirty-three were adopted into
Latter-day Saint homes in the United States. Twelve have married in the temple,
and nine have served full-time missions.
Also of utmost importance to Sister Whang was that the girls learn
responsibility and be treated as equals. They were each assigned chores around
the home_preparing food, washing clothes, and cleaning_and they were each
expected to use the home's resources wisely. Jessica remembers a time when one
of the girls threw away a blouse that could have been repaired. When Sister
Whang found it in the garbage, she lectured the girls on not wasting. Then, at
the next home evening, she gave everyone a plastic sewing box full of needles
and thread and taught them how to mend.
Still Caring about Her Girls
Even though the girls grew up and no longer live with her, Sister Whang cares
about them still. Rosemarie Slover, former matron of the Seoul Korea Temple,
says that when she and her husband, Robert, returned to Provo two years ago,
Sister Whang asked them to check on her girls who lived in Utah, especially one
who had just left Korea and would be homesick. Sister Whang corresponds with
many of her girls, and her small, sparsely furnished room_she now rents the rest
of her house in Seoul_is filled with pictures of them and their families.
And the girls feel a similar concern for their "mom." In October 1990, she
went to the United States to escort several children who were being adopted by
U.S. families. Many girls who had sung in the Tender Apples choir gathered from
far and near to see her. President Till speaks of watching her greet her
"children," with a broad smile on her face and tears in her eyes. As each woman
arrived, often accompanied by a husband and children, Sister Whang would gather
the group in a massive hug and hold on as if she would never let go.
"I've never seen Sister Whang show such emotion," remembers President Till.
"It was especially touching when I thought of what might have happened to those
girls without her. A couple of them probably wouldn't have survived. The rest of
them probably would have ended up as servants or living on the street. Sister
Whang truly provided physical salvation for those girls_and gave them the
opportunity for spiritual salvation by introducing them to the gospel."
A Heart Big Enough for the World
But Sister Whang's selflessness extends beyond her girls to everyone she
meets. "She has a heart big enough for the whole world," smiles Jini. "She can
accept and love anybody." Jini saw this illustrated vividly three and a half
years ago when Jini went to Korea to find her brother, from whom she had been
separated twenty-eight years earlier. He was now an alcoholic, both mentally and
physically ill. He had no home, no money, no job_nothing but the tattered
clothes on his back. Jini was forced to place him in a government institution.
Since family members were required to provide patients' personal items, Jini
called Sister Whang. Could Jini leave money and have Sister Whang phone the
institution occasionally to see that her brother had the things he needed?
Sister Whang promptly agreed. But instead of calling, she traveled to visit the
man each week. By then she was the principal of a large preschool and
kindergarten. But she regularly took nearly a whole day off work to bake him
treats, ride the bus to the institution, then sit with him and hold his
hand_even though he could give her little response.
"I couldn't believe she did that," says Jini. "She had never even met this
guy. But she said, 'I look forward to it every week.' "
"If there ever was a ministering angel, she's one," says Stan Bronson. "I
believe with all my heart that she was raised up by the Lord for these
Through it all, Sister Whang_one of Korea's gospel pioneers_has done all she
can to help build God's kingdom on earth. She served for many years as district
and stake Relief Society president, and she has been a temple worker since the
Seoul temple opened in 1985. She asked to officiate two days each week instead
of the normal one, reports Robert Slover, former temple president. Why? "She
says it's the Lord's work," explains Suzette Marble, "and she would do anything
for Him_and be happy to do it."
Sister Whang's example has changed the lives of all who know her. "She never
talks about what she has done, but she just goes about her work in her own
small, quiet way," observes Sister Slover.
"I think of her every day," says Jini, "and I use her as a role model. She
has taught me that one person can make a difference."