Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Baltimore teen finds her writing passion in giving a voice to her brother with autism

From The Baltimore Sun:

As a child, Carol Kim (pictured) would help her autistic brother on the playground because of his walking disability. When she was 8, she once punched a boy in the face who called him stupid.

But her brother Charles is only a year younger than she is. So not only has she served as his protector, but he in turn has been her friend and inspiration.

So when Kim, 17, read the open-ended prompt for a Kaplan/Newsweek essay contest, she said she knew immediately what to write about. Her brother is a topic she has touched on in several other writing assignments, including an elementary school essay, her eighth-grade convocation speech and another essay contest. This time around, she scored second place and won $2,000 in scholarship money.

"Writing is definitely a passion of mine," said Kim, a senior at the Bryn Mawr School for Girls and Pikesville resident. "I think that through writing I'll be able to express the wants and needs of people who don't have a voice and aren't able to communicate, especially like my brother. He's not able to speak or write."

Despite being a busy student, she still finds time to spend with Charles, whom she takes on hourlong walks. Now that he's a "rambunctious" teenager, she said, it's important that he exercises. All that adolescent energy, she wrote in her essay, comes with considerable temper tantrums on his end, and snowballing frustration on her end.

"One day, after he dismantled what must have been his 10th VCR, splattered soup all over the living room walls, and slapped me in the face, I screamed that my greatest wish was that he would die," she wrote. "I don't think he understood me; I hope he didn't understand me."

In the next paragraph, though, she conceded that Charles has ultimately enriched her life - he's helped her realize her own blessings and pushed her toward a more selfless existence.

"This whole essay-writing process helps me understand myself better and my relationship with my brother and also with the rest of my family," she said.

Jongsung Kim, Carol and Charles' father, said Carol has always been remarkably close to her brother and in tune with his needs.

"Ever since Charles was born, Carol has been more than a sister," he said. "I have been very impressed to see how caring Carol has been. ... Ever since she was 3 or 4 years old, Carol has wanted to make sure Charles was safe."

When she's not writing about her brother, Kim works to help the voiceless in a more hands-on way: She volunteers with the Korean American Disabled People Association. Charles has been a member for seven years, and Kim's been involved unofficially since eighth grade. She goes to their annual summer camp, and she's been working to create personal files for each of the members, which will help the police in case a person who can't speak gets lost.

Her volunteerism doesn't end there: She also teaches English to Spanish-speaking students at the Esperanza Center in Baltimore. It ties into her affinity for Spanish - she takes language classes at the University of Maryland, College Park, and will be the co-president of her high school's Spanish club this year - but it also stems from her desire to "effect change."

"I'd like to be involved with reforming and bringing more attention to certain issues, like autism," said Kim, who wants to study government policy and later go into journalism. She edits Bryn Mawr's student newspaper and literary magazine.

Peter Metsopoulos, Kim's ninth-grade English teacher, said all the time she has spent writing has paid off. She has kept in touch with him throughout high school, sending him the many personal essays she has written.

"She has an identity as a writer and has been honing that craft assiduously over the course of four years," he said. "I was so impressed with her as an analytical writer, and to see she was also able to reveal herself personally. ... It's been amazing to watch her develop in that way."

After high school, when she gets the distance from Charles she's sometimes fleetingly wished for, Kim said she knows separation will be bittersweet.

"I'm excited for the opportunity to be completely independent," she said. "But I'll definitely miss my family a lot."