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Friday, May 13, 2011

Untimely Death Unites Community

I never knew Nathan Furey but we had many mutual friends and his life has touched mine and that of others he never met in ways that I doubt he would have ever imagined. Following is the article I wrote for Yonhap News Agency on part of his legacy, although I had enough material to write a small book. I may do so for his sons when they are old enough to ask.

JEJU ISLAND, South Korea, May 13 (Yonhap) -- Many of the expatriate community on Jeju Island never met Nathan Furey, a young Canadian English teacher who suddenly died on March 13, 2009, but his name lives on for many on the island and abroad.

   A foundation started in Furey's name has become a symbol of caring for others, community spirit, friendship and, equally important, fun. It seems a fitting tribute to a young father in the prime of his life who left his Jeju-born wife a widow and two young sons fatherless when he died of an undiagnosed illness. His mother, Betty, said the final pathology was inconclusive but the doctors suspect that her son died of Japanese encephalitis.

   Jeju Island, like much of Korea, is filled with young expats teaching English, many of whom come for a year and stay for many more. This volcanic island of beaches, resorts, women divers and a unique indigenous culture at the southern reaches of South Korea is a favorite honeymoon resort for Japanese and Korean couples, and a haven for artistic or adventurous souls. As happens with young and old the world over, relationships form and fall asunder, and marriages occur between different cultures.

   Furey and Kim Hyo-jung were one such union. She and the couple's sons, Juno and Noah, now live with Furey's family in New Westminster, British Columbia, where Hyo-jung has applied for permanent Canadian residency.

   Betty says that her grandsons, Juno and Noah, have given her and her family -- her husband, Jim, and daughter Jennifer -- a focus that helps them work through the loss of her son.

   "Every time we look at them, we think 'Oh Nathan, I hope you're watching,'" she said in a recent phone interview.

   Jeju has a population of just over half a million, two main cities and a smallish English-speaking community. Those English teachers who choose to stay more than a year usually know each other. Dan Nabben and Furey weren't close friends but went hiking together some weekends.

   On the morning of March 8, Furey checked himself into a clinic when he wasn't feeling well. That evening, he was found unconscious in the washroom and was immediately taken to a hospital where he died five days later, with his parents at his bedside.

   Aided by fellow teachers Anj Schroeder and Jessie Dishaw, Nabben spearheaded fundraising efforts.

   "I wasn't a best friend so it wasn't up to me to go to the house to comfort Hyo-jung or look after the kids," he said, "but since I wasn't taking things quite as hard, it meant I could start figuring out how we could help out the family in other ways."

   That effort has grown into the Furey Foundation, initially set up to raise funds for Hyo-jung and her children, but now looking after another local Jeju family. With help from locals and an eager pool of volunteers, the foundation has become a brand for the island as it holds a variety of events under Furey's name.

   There have been four beach volleyball tournaments, with two more planned this year, two bowling competitions, and beach Frisbee and screen golf events. The first badminton event is planned for June. There have also been five or six auctions.

   Sponsors across the island, from Nohyeong Catholic Church to Jeju Book Town, provide support and prizes for competitions and raffles. Two local businesses, Texas-gal baker's Jeju Cakes by Christine and Korean meat-lover's Peter Burgers have started as a direct result of helping raise funds for the foundation.

   Nabben, who has been on the island for six years himself, said people enjoy the events because they're fun and also because they're for a good cause. A little more than 16 million won (US$15,000) has been given to Furey's family, all of which will be used for the boys' education, Betty said.

    Two million won has thus far been given to the new beneficiaries -- a family from Iho, where the beach volleyball tournaments are held. Nabben said the 78-year-old woman is raising two orphaned grandchildren on 200,000 won in government aid per month and a tiny income from odd jobs.

   The foundation, which Nabben runs, also has more than 4 million won invested in power and sound equipment, sports gear and apparel. He plans to give another 4 million won to the Fureys over the next year or two to reach the 20 million won target.

   Nabben cited long-term resident Fred Dustin, founder of Kimnyeong Maze Park and a quiet financial supporter of many initiatives on the island, when asked why the change to a local beneficiary. He had heard indirectly that Dustin thought it extremely important to give back to the community and that stayed in his mind.

   Dishaw, who helped with the first fundraiser and plays in every sports event, said she and others see this as a great way for the foreign community to give back to Jeju.

   "I know many of the foreigners living here feel that Jeju gives them so much in quality of life, so it feels good to give back to the island we love," she said.

   Nabben said he originally planned to hold just one tournament but changed his mind when he saw how everyone liked it, and also because the sponsors deserved more exposure than one event.

   "Then, when it became clear I would be doing these until I left, I decided I would want to do more than just raise money for one family. I wanted there to be something significant done for Iho."

   Betty said that she and her family "couldn't be happier about this decision as the needs of Nathan's family pale in contrast to the needs of others."

   "This is the highest tribute possible and we're sure that Nathan is smiling," she said.

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