Sonja was a petite Korean woman who volunteered with me in a nonprofit thrift store that served struggling families and homeless people in our area. One Tuesday morning as we completed our shifts, she told me her story.
When she was a child in Korea, Sonja’s mother pulled her from bed each morning well before daylight so they could wait in a long line for one sack of flour. In bold print on each sack were these words: From the USA.
The flour, cooked in a pot of boiling water, was all her family had to eat that day.
Not long after her eighth birthday, Sonja’s school teacher told the class, “Something very exciting has happened! You all have a gift from the United States of America!”
Sonja opened her box, which contained a tiny pink plastic doll no bigger than the palm of her hand. This gift from America was one of her greatest memories. “I loved that doll!” she recalls. “It was the prettiest thing I had ever seen!”
In future years more food arrived, mostly flour but sometimes meat and vegetables, always from the United States.
“The USA saved many of my people from starvation,” Sonja says. “I vowed I would live in that great country some day.”
Sonja wasn’t exaggerating when she claimed that many of her people were saved from starvation. Following the Korean war in 1950–1953, food was so scarce that people scoured the hills for edible herbs and plants. U.S. assistance began in 1952 and was vital to Korea’s survival.
The armed forces delivered food and clothing and routinely helped rebuild orphanages and schools. Troops donated money for supplies and equipment and American soldiers and Korean civilians worked side by side in reconstruction tasks.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy shifted the U.S. government’s approach to foreign assistance by placing new emphasis on “aid to end aid”and “helping people to help themselves.” That same year, he launched the Peace Corps, and in 1966 the first Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Korea.
Assistance from the United States and other countries laid the groundwork for the Korean economic “miracle” of the 1960’s and 1970’s, when the country experienced a national transformation from poverty to wealth. By the 1990’s, Korea had moved from aid recipient to aid donor.
Many years after the war, Sonja fulfilled her vow and immigrated to the United States. Her children have grown up and prospered here, but she worries about the future. She doesn’t believe a country can continue to be great unless its people are generous and compassionate, honest and hard working.
She believes faith in God and values that flow from faith are the source of this very unique spirit that would lead a country to send starving children food and toys and hope for the future.
Are we still that country? Are we still a people who would feed the hungry and offer hope to the hopeless? If the answer is yes, then Sonja believes we can still be great.