In the early 1960s, as a sponsored child, Carolyn Sommerfeldt Swan toured the world singing for presidents, kings and queens
Carolyn Sommerfeldt Swan points to a record album cover. On it, 32 children stand in three rows, dressed in traditional Korean clothing.
“Guess which one I am,” the 62-year- old Cambridge, Ont., resident says. Then she adds with a laugh, “I was so cute. You’re going to ask what happened to me.”
She’s the girl in the second row. You’d recognize her prominent cheek- bones and her big smile. She graces the cover of five albums that were recorded when she was a member of the World Vision Korean Orphan Choir in 1961. The choir was made up of children between the ages of seven and 13 who were chosen among 13,000 orphans from World Vision-sponsored orphanages in South Korea.
“I just feel like God’s hand is always with me somehow when I look back at my life,” she says.
A cover of one of the albums the choir released while Carolyn was a member.
Carolyn was born as Bok-Rye Park, the youngest of five siblings. Her family became separated during the Korean War (1950-1953). She ended up in a World Vision orphanage in Suwon. She shared a tiny room with a dozen kids, who all slept side by side like sardines in a can.
“Even going to school, it was really, really hard because [the other students] know you’re an orphan so they teased me. My self-image was really low.”
But God gave her a silly, outgoing personality, she says. She was always making the other kids laugh.
She was cheered by visits from her brother who is 12 years older. He had grown up in an orphanage in another city, but when he was old enough, he would come see her. She also had World Vision sponsors—the Muirs, a family from Seattle with a son, Phil, and a daughter, Marni, who was a year older than Carolyn. “I always looked forward to getting a letter or a picture [from them]. It showed that someone cared about me and helped me care about myself.”
When she was seven, she auditioned for the World Vision Korean Orphan Choir. “I was very nervous. I was shaking. But because my personality was not too shy, I just sang,” she says.
Her audition earned her a place in the choir. Carolyn moved from the Suwon orphanage to the World Vision Musical Institute in Seoul. “It was like leaving hundreds of my brothers and sisters,” she says. But the musical institute had its benefits. “I didn’t have to share the room with as many kids. There was more food there.”
The choir practised for many hours each day. They learned more than a thousand songs, including “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Amazing Grace” and various national anthems. The choir toured the world to raise money for a World Vision children’s hospital in Seoul. Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision, accompanied the kids during some of their travels. They called him aboji, which means “father” in Korean. They climbed on his shoulders and swung from his arms.
The choir first travelled to the U.S., then spent six months performing in Austria, Norway, France, England, Israel and India. They sang in the Taj Mahal. They performed for King Olav of Norway and Madame Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan. Carolyn flips through newspaper clippings and black and white photos. There are pictures of the choir in front of the White House and with President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
When they performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, 4,000 people had to be turned away. “There were so many people outside waiting that we had to do a second concert.”
At a concert in Seattle, her sponsors, the Muirs, came to see her. She bonded instantly with Marni. “I just felt very special,” she says. “These people who I didn’t even know, they showed so much love and affection. They were just so delighted to see me.” She adds, “I think it was the first time that I felt what love meant.”
After the tour, the Muirs moved to adopt Carolyn. “It was hard for me to go [to Seattle] when I was 12.” With time, she adapted to her new home. “Somehow God gave me the strength. I started to make friends at school. My self-image started to develop. My personality came back to me and I ran for vice-president of the student body,” she remembers.
Carolyn (red), her daughter, Maria, her granddaughter, Eva, and grandson, Joel, at a recent cultural event at her church, Koinonia Christian Fellowship, in Bloomingdale, Ont.
When Carolyn and her husband returned to Canada, they moved to Vancouver and then settled in Cambridge. Their marriage ended. In 2003, Carolyn remarried to Mike Swan.
Today, among Carolyn’s old albums that are filled with black and white pictures of her time at the musical institute, you’ll find colourful photo books of her three children, her eight grandchildren and her second husband.
Carolyn also has a binder filled with photos, drawings, postcards and letters from her “other children”—the 15 children she has sponsored over the years through World Vision. Her own children have gotten involved in sponsorship.
“When you get involved in World Vision child sponsorship, you’re changing one person.” She adds, “You don’t know how this one person will touch other people’s lives.”
This article appears in the Winter 2014/15 issue of Childview.