Adoptees Do It Best
By Shelise Gieseke
Before I left for Korea, Kevin Ost-Vollmers and I had a conversation about an interaction I had with my American adoption agency regarding the search for my Korean family. For me, the interaction indicated that my adoption agency hasn’t figured out how to effectively work with adult adoptees. The manner in which I was addressed and the language that was used to discuss my situation told me that the adoption professional I was working with did not know how to guide me through the agencies policies in a way that made me feel safe or even acknowledged.
Regardless of this upsetting interaction, I made the trek to Korea and was rewarded with a very satisfying experience through the G.O.A.’L First Trip Home program. G.O.A’L has hosted the First Trip Home program for adoptees since 2008 to assist adoptees in birth family searches and (re) introduce them to their birth country.
G.O.A.’L was founded by Ami Nafzger and is run and staffed by Korean adoptees. And, therein lies the difference. From the outset, it was clear that G.O.A.’L recognized and was prepared to guide me through the highly emotional journey that is a birth family search and birth country visit. Logistical and emotional support was available to all the participants at any time. Additionally, many of the people working for this program and for the organization had personal experience in birth family search and/or living in or visiting Korea as an adoptee. To me, G.O.A.’L is a shining example of how “adoptee-centric” thinking helps and nurtures other adoptees, as well as educates the general community about the adoptee experience.
During the week I participated in the First Trip Home program, I often found myself thinking, “This is how it should be done. We know how to take care of one another.” For one, the First Trip Home program eliminated a main factor that I believe prevents many adoptees from returning to Korea – money. The program reimbursed me for my airfare, paid for my food and lodging, and covered transportation costs while I was in Seoul. Also, I did not have to pay any fees for assistance with my birth family search. G.O.A’L staff and volunteers made all the necessary arrangements for me to visit my Korean adoption agency, review my Korean adoption file and participate in a TV show that could potentially help me find my Korean family.
(See minute 36:32)
Second, another major factor, the language barrier, was less of a challenge thanks to the numerous and generous volunteers coordinated by G.O.A.’L. Korean/English-speaking volunteers assisted all the participants from eating in a restaurant to meeting members of a birth family. Having the support of these volunteers made adventures in Korea possible and very enjoyable. Life-long connections to Korea were made through these volunteers.
Finally, G.O.A.’L offered support and understanding. At no time was my visit to Korea framed as just a visit. The presence of strong emotions, both negative and positive, was recognized and encouraged. All the staff and volunteers were willing to share their personal stories and experiences or just lend an open set of ears. Group discussions were organized to help adoptees process their experiences and support one another. In my personal birth family search, I never felt that any avenue for my search was closed to me nor was pursuit of any avenue ever discouraged. If anything, G.O.A’L encouraged all the participants to take advantage of their time in Korea to search for their families.
The result was a positive, powerful, life-altering, emotional experience that felt so much more than just a trip to Korea. It felt like an elusive door was opened for me and I was welcomed by all as I stepped over the threshold. Many of the adoptees (probably all) who participated in the program talked about their future visits to Korea, how the program had changed their lives and how happy they were to be a part of this wonderful group.
G.O.A’L and the First Trip Home program was able to create an environment that allowed adoptees to form a meaningful, positive connection to Korea, regardless of the success of their Korean family search. It created a space that allowed and encouraged us to feel all the emotions that accompany such a significant journey. And, I firmly believe this beautiful experience was possible because of the work and dedication of adoptees that are committed to guiding other adoptees’ journey down this path in the adoption experience in a way that is safe, healthy and adoptee-centered.
So, agencies, pay attention and take notes. If you want adoptees to pay you to take them back to their birth countries, you are going to have to offer more than just sexy tour titles. The “Tiger” tour can’t offer me what the adoptees at G.O.A’L. can.
Many thanks and lifelong gratitude to all the staff and volunteers of G.O.A.’L and the First Trip Home program. I encourage everyone to donate to G.O.A’L, so they may continue to offer their excellent services to the adoptee community.
My trip to Korea has been a long time in the making. I was very anxious before leaving for Korea and the First Trip Home program, but I have no regrets and all my anxiety was for naught thanks to the people of G.O.A.’L. I am so grateful that this trip was an option for me. I can’t imagine navigating Korea and a family search on my own or paying thousands of dollars to an agency to “introduce” me to the place where a piece of my heart resides. Way to go adoptees. We are kicking ass.