Doraemon is an animation character that likes sharing his belongings and ideas with Jingu, his bestfriend, to help Jingu lead a stress free life. Do people like Doraemon really exist? Well, one Korean sure comes close. He is a volunteer counselor at Seven Big Sisters. He listens to the worries and offers advice to the youth. The Sookmyung Times met Jang Jaeyul, CEO of Seven Big Sisters, a youth counselling center to learn more about his work.
Q. Please explain more about the youth counselling center ‘Seven Big Sisters’, which is well-known as a place that listens to young voices.
Established as a Non-Government Organization (NGO), the Center will celebrate its 5th anniversary this 2017. We have a total of 13 ‘sisters’ and ‘brothers’ working at the Center. When we first started out, there were only 8 founding members, including myself, but last year we recruited 5 new members. We counsel young adults both on and offline, and the age of people seeking help are in their twenties and thirties. Because each of our 13 employees also work regularly from Monday to Friday jobs, we work on weekends or during late evening hours. The time spent at Seven Big Sisters is completely voluntary. None of the staff receive any form of payment. At present, the Center has logged over 3 million hours of counselling. It has been collecting and storing counselling data for the past three years to provide clinical evidence and convey social messages about youth problem in modern Korean society.
Q. What prompted you to establish ‘Seven Big Sisters’?
While working in the fashion industry, I found myself depressed, so I decided to resign from the company. My therapist at the time suggested I engage in self-help by writing a blog. There I would create questions and then respond to them. Basically, it was similar to a monologue but using written texts. I found myself improving and no longer suffering from the blues. Over time, my blog started to get viewed by people because I’d hashtagged the words ‘Samsung’, ‘Resign’, and ‘Quit’. I believe it was these keywords that allowed me to win the sympathy of students who were between jobs. Many people empathized with my blog postings and said the writings were a form of counselling. To be honest, that was not my initial intention. I never imagined myself a counselor, but people started sending me e-mails in which they detailed their anxieties and asked advice. Seven Big Sisters grew from there, a simply blog used to help me cope with depression.
Q. What brought about your depression?
When I was hired, I was told I would be a fashion marketer, but I got assigned to work as human resource director. With the job market as it was, I had no choice but to stay in my delegated positions. One day, I was sent to a university to promote the company as part of its recruiting program. A young lady, waited until I’d completed the presentation before coming up to me and said, “as long as I can remember, I’d wanted to be a part of this fashion company, but seeing your face throughout the recruitment promotion, I felt gloomy. You look and sound so unhappy. Do you not like your job?” With all my supervisors and other company recruiters nearby, I could only respond with “I am very satisfied.” However, on my way home, I knew that was not the truth. I could no longer go on lying to young people with grand illusions and dreams of entering the company. I was not being honest about the company and employment. I knew they would succumb to the same depression I was then in.
Q. Why did you name your counselling center ‘Seven Big Sisters’?
I didn’t. Netizens gave that name. As I mentioned previously, ‘Seven Big Sisters’ arose out of my personal blog. The blog had no researched or evidential information since I was only writing for myself as a means of self-help. Random viewers started to write me e-mail requesting counselling sessions. These same viewers quickly found out the blog writer had no credentials and wondered who I was. The sole bits of information they obtained were from Q&A menu. They learnt that I had graduated from Seoul National University College of Arts, that I was in my early thirties, that I’d resigned from a fashion-related company, and that I smoked a lot. With the information, viewers started referring to me as a ‘Big Sister’ like Jessi, the rap star. After making inference, people started calling me “sister” in e-mails. They had no idea I was a male. In other words, it was netizens who named the counselling center ‘Seven Big Sisters’.
Q. Researching ‘Seven Big Sisters’, I found that every sister and brother have their own unique name. Do the different names reflect different roles?
We chose names that best relate to how we feel we can benefit others. Thus, every staff names her or himself. One staff refers to herself as ‘Meaning Sister’ because she enjoys sharing the value of life with others. Another goes by the name ‘Sister Next Door’ because of the belief that without any special talent or expertise, the best she can do for someone is just listen and show empathy as a dear neighbor would do. Likewise, sisters make their own unique name depending on their characteristics which leads to their various methods of counselling.
Q. Many students feel their university studies were meaningless once they leave school and enter the workforce. Has your major, Pottery, helped you after graduation?
I also felt my major to be useless. I never wanted to become a craftsman, so I never believed majoring in pottery would ever help me in the future. However, as the years passed, and after beming a counsellor, I soon learnt that the craft of pottery contributed greatly to my ability to consult others, especially as one with no counselling background. Detail is of utmost importance when creating pottery. For instance, even four white bowls are not all exactly alike. I can see the difference and quantify the difference by saturation and intensity. My days at university have given me the ability to see deep into people. In other words, learning to become a craftsman has influenced my talent to counsel others. To all those saying university studies are meaningless, despite not using all the knowledge and information learnt from your major, the attitude and characteristics of the major will follow you long after graduation.
Q. You have counselled numerous people throughout the years. Have you ever encountered any difficulties and how did you overcome them?
Indeed. The most difficult thing to accept is the fact that I cannot always help someone. Everyone is unique, and there are limits to how much others can help. Whenever someone seeks help from me, but I cannot reach them as their issues are beyond my ability, I truly feel sorry for them. For example, it is really hard to counsel transgenders and single mothers. None of our Big Sisters have much background in those areas and as a result, it is hard to offer any advice. To resolve these issues, the Center established ‘Friends of Seven Big Sisters’. Basically, it is sisterhood relationships with other institutes who specialize in helping minority groups. Whenever we cannot provide the necessary help, we refer them to those sister institutes by introducing them to ‘Friends of Seven Big Sisters’.
Q. On the more positive side, what is the most fruitful moment you remember?
All moments are fruitful and carry great meaning for me, but if I were to choose just one, I’d have to say moments when people revisit the Center to say that their problem has been resolved. They often say it was the Sisters’ advice that helped them through the difficulty and they want to repay our kindness. I simply tell them, “Once your problem has truly vanquished, visit us again and we’d love to have you work alongside us as volunteer consultants.” A number of people have indeed returned and asked to be one-day volunteers at the Center. The slogan of Seven Big Sisters is “Everyone can be Seven Big Sisters”, and whenever I see previously help people returning to the Center and becoming volunteers, I see our slogan shining through them. I really feel my life has worth in those moments.
Q. Listening to others’ worries must be stressful for Seven Big Sister staff. In these cases, when a staff feel overwhelmed, do you share the concerns with others?
Yes, of course. We share a lot amongst ourselves. Most of the staff at Seven Big Sisters do not have any background in counselling, but our greatest strength is our empathic ability when listening to others. Sadly, this talent also means that we intake those worries as well. To avoid being eaten from the inside, in groups of 3 or 4, we gather to share our worries and concerns and to offer advice to each other. We act as both therapist and patient. Staff members at Seven Big Sisters are almost as close as blood sisters, and we all value that closeness more than money.
Q. Would you recommend any activities people in their twenties should do before they reach their thirties?
I would hope everyone to experience the most beautiful ‘you’. As you age, experiences pile up, knowledge grows, and true love is found. However, there are two things that are left behind after leaving your twenties: your appearance and health. Enjoy life in your twenties. Adorn yourself. Beautify yourself. Judge your own beauty and take care of the way you look, to have beautiful appearance. Then you will feel your sense of worth growing. Also, learn a sport that you can continue to enjoy as you age since learning something new when you are older is much harder. If you learn it now, you will be able to enjoy it for the rest of your life.
Q. What are your future plans?
I plan to continue my work as a volunteer counselor and keep up Seven Big Sisters. When I get too old to connect with people seeking help, I’d like to remain as founder of Seven Big Sisters, but I’d step down as a working staff member and allow the younger staff to carry on the good work of Seven Big Sisters. Personally, my goal is to have a romance rumor with a talent. Haha. Also, I would like to work as a TV talk show host. I would like to share to everyone what I’ve learnt listening to others and help others shine bright like a diamond. As a TV host, I’d have the opportunity to let others show off their talents and abilities in front of a massive audience. Today, Korean society believes workers with consciene cannot live well in the world. I’d like to show everyone across the nation that being socially responsible and respectful of others can also lead to a rich life.
Q. Lastly, would you please leave some final words to Sookmyungians?
‘Servant Leadership’ is my personal slogan at Seven Big Sisters, and, truth be known, it comes from Sookmyung Womens’ University. I’ve always liked the slogan and it touched me greatly in my twenties. Sookmyungians are blessed because they get the opportunity to spend 4 years learning under that slogan. I believe that as society changes, people should know how to respect others and at the same time live a life as ‘I’ myself. In other words, leadership and obedience are both equally important in society. I firmly believe that if Sookmyungians become people with Servant Leadership, such characteristics would be a driving force to protect Sookmyungians in the future.
- Graduate of Arts and Craft from Seoul National University’ 12
- Founder of ‘Seven Big Sisters’ in 2013
- Author of ‘To All Those Who Didn’t Cry But Endured’ in 2016
- Host of EBS Radio FM ‘Active Listening’ and ‘Matter Rediscovery’