Bridging cultures through volunteerism

by Celeste Maturen
Groove Korea (

Fifteen years ago, Dan Gauthier moved to Korea to teach English. He was placed at a hagwon in a small village on the outskirts of Ulsan, an industrial city on the southeast shores of the peninsula. Standing just across from his after-school academy, the Ulsan Orphanage housed nearly 100 children, from new-borns to 18-year-olds – many of whom loved soccer. In his free time, Dan started impromptu pick-up games on the orphanage lawn. His one-man team eventually grew into a community of volunteers that came to be known as T-Hope; the “T” standing for “teachers” and the latter syllable is shared by many non-profit organizations worldwide owing to its altruistic message – Helping Other People Everywhere. Fast forward to 2015, and under new leadership, with a new name intended to be inclusive of all volunteers, We-Hope is on its way to becoming an official NGO, with plans to expand its volunteerism from Ulsan to the world at large.

The organization hit its groove in 2011 with its very first Christmas party at the Ulsan orphanage. Donations and foreign volunteers flooded in from neighboring areas to help wish the children good tidings. Unlike many non-profits in Korea, We-Hope is not religiously affiliated in any way. Gaining NGO status will also allow the organization to stand on its own, without the assistance of a Korean organization to back its events and fundraising efforts. In years past, We-Hope has partnered with the Ulsan International Volunteer Center (UIVC), but on occasion their visions have clashed, sometimes perpetuating misunderstandings between the foreign and Korean communities in Ulsan.

Jazzie Choi, a native Ulsanite, envisions the organization moving forward as a single community, uniting Koreans and foreigners in the name of volunteerism. “In the past, my Korean friends didn’t really seem interested in volunteering with T-Hope,” says Choi. “But, since they found out that we’re becoming an NGO, they’ve been asking me about getting involved.” Choi is a lifelong volunteer, having helped at a home for the blind since before the age of 10, but she doesn’t know many other Koreans in the same boat. “I get a sense that volunteering is very natural for foreigners, but it’s not the same for Koreans.” Choi hopes that more local natives will join We-Hope to experience the fulfilment she has gained through volunteering. With the new demographic of volunteers, We-Hope organizers expect volunteer numbers to surpass the usual 15 to 20 per monthly visit to the Ulsan orphanage and Lotus Center.

Nate Mandigo, a permanent resident of Ulsan from Canada, is assuming the reigns of We-Hope along with Jazzie Choi. A former UN employee and community organizer, Mandigo says that becoming a recognized NGO opens doors financially for the organization. As a non-profit, We-Hope can accept donations with transparency, which Mandigo hopes will encourage people to donate more (and more often) as We-Hope wishes to expand its efforts to other needy organizations within the community. In addition to the Ulsan Orphanage, We-Hope volunteers work with the Lotus Center, a socializing space for autistic children, and Mandigo is sketching out plans to put volunteers at a center for the blind and perhaps one day even organize an Ulsan Special Olympics.

Choi and Mandigo have been patiently waiting for the approval of their application, submitted in May of this year. All necessary paperwork, including a petition with more than 100 signatures from We-Hope volunteers, has been submitted. The duo expect official approval to come any day now, just in time for the first of their major fall fundraising efforts to support Christmas parties for the Ulsan Orphanage and Lotus Center. The organization hosted a tent, selling pulled pork, burgers and pierogies at the World Music Fest in Ulsan in early October and held their own charity bar crawl, known as the Poker Run, a couple of weeks later.

For Gauthier, volunteering is just a way of life, but he knew that his organization could offer support to more than just the children. Donating hours of play to the orphanage and organizing fundraising efforts gives young ESL teachers something else to do besides drink—and at the same time enhances their relatively blank resumes. “What’s better: a recommendation from your hagwon owner or a recommendation from the head of a non-profit?” asks Gauthier rhetorically. Mandigo and Choi are hoping, whatever the motivation, that more expats and natives will come out to volunteer and in doing so, likely bridge some of the gaps between the two communities. “After all,” Choi says, “whether or not you notice, you get a lot from the community and you should give back if you have a chance.”

For more information, or to become a volunteer, visit



Groove Korea website

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