Side by Side: How the idea began
In May 2013, Glenn and I traveled to Seoul, South Korea. Glenn was born in Seoul in 1960 and adopted by a family in Littleton, Colorado. We’ve taken this trip several times before for pleasure, but this time we would also be directing an English-language interview with Dr. Cho Byung-Kuk, a retired physician who spent nearly 50 years working with homeless and disabled Korean children in conjunction with Holt Children’s Services in Seoul. (Her story is inspiring. Read more here.)
This was our first experience producing internationally. The job was small but needed a local bilingual producer, cameraman, grip, and equipment. On a Wednesday morning, we met Dr. Cho and our crew at Holt’s Ilsan Center outside of Seoul. Ilsan is a sprawling campus, permanent home to approximately 300 residents with physical or developmental disabilities, toddlers to adults. Dr. Cho is a favorite in this place and her small office was filled that day with a steady stream of curious and chatty residents, interested in the camera and new faces. Just down the hill, a festival geared up with drums and loudspeakers. After a few attempts at clean audio, we accepted the cacophony as part of Ilsan and forged ahead.
Dr. Cho is a wealth of memories. She told us of her earliest years in North Korea, her challenges as a young female doctor in a patriarchal society, what drew her to Seoul Children’s Hospital after the war and, ultimately, to devote her life to the neediest of all — Korea’s homeless, disabled babies.
It’s impossible to spend time in the presence of Dr. Cho and her “children” without feeling the magnitude of this place. Its walls are covered with over 50 years of photos and newspaper clippings of those who passed through. In the 1950s, when Ilsan was a more traditional orphanage, countless children — disabled and not — were adopted to homes around the world. Many more spent time here but were never adopted, “aging out” as adults as young as 16 years old to make a life for themselves in Korean society. This pattern repeated in orphanages all around the country. What became of these children who once lived, literally, side by side and then took such divergent paths?
Two important connections would come our way on this trip. The first was a woman with deep family ties to children’s homes and orphanages in Korea. The other a young, bilingual social worker. Both would prove invaluable in the months ahead as we attempted to create a project we called Side by Side.