How One Man's Devotion Helps Salvage Broken Lives

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DONALD MACINTYRE YaesanKim Yong Pil isn't ordained yet, but last year the would-be Presbyterian clergyman found an unusual mission: turning city-slickers into farmers. After Korea's economic crisis hit in late 1997, men tossed out of their jobs started trickling back to Yaesan, the farming town 130 km south of Seoul where Kim lives. Former white-collar workers, managers, company owners--they were all desperate for work. But they didn't know the first thing about working the land. Deeply moved by the men's plight, Kim decided to set up a training program for aspiring farmers from scratch, with nothing but his own savings. The situation was so desperate, says Kim. I had to do something.Kim runs the whole show himself. Rising at 5 a.m., he downs a simple breakfast of rice, soup and kimchi, then heads off to meet his students. By 5:30 he's leading them through stretching exercises. Then it's off to school: on a recent day, pupils go from a chrysanthemum greenhouse to a watermelon farm, before visiting a man who raises canaries and finches for the pet market. With up to six dozen students shuffling among the 50 farms involved in the program, coordination is no easy task. Kim zips from class to class in his Tico minicompact, juggling schedules spread out over his steering wheel as he barks instructions into his cell phone.

Kim and his family settled in the area five years ago, after he finished theology studies in Seoul. But since then he's so busy he hasn't had time to be ordained. Even Sundays aren't rest days--he holds informal church services in a small bungalow he built himself, then spends the afternoon with his students. He says the morning stretches keep him healthy, along with a daily regime of cold water--a glass and-a-half a day--and servings of his own organically-grown vegetables. The punishing schedule is taking its toll, however. Most nights, he doesn't get home before 11 p.m., well after his three young children have gone to bed. But with the country in economic turmoil, he says, these aren't ordinary times. It's like a war every day. I can't rest while my brethren are starving.

Already 180 newly minted farmers have graduated, and 375 more are on the waiting list. But it could be a long wait--Kim is nearly broke. While local farmers chip in with free training, costs are still high: $6,000 a month for such expenses as food, housing and gas. Trainees pay only $13 for admission to the one-month course, and some can't afford even that. Recently Kim was so strapped for cash he had to cut down a field of hot-pepper plants before the crop was ready--he needed the leaves to feed his students.

Kim says he has tried to get money from the government, which is increasing its budget for worker retraining. Labor Minister Lee Ki Ho promised to help. But ministry bureaucrats later told Kim his project fell outside ministry guidelines. Asked about the problem in an interview with Time, Lee promised to cut through the red tape. He'd better hurry, since Kim just took on 70 new students.

With reporting by Stella Kim/Yaesan