By Irfan Shariff
Northwest Asian Weekly
For Korean American Brett Halvorson, a little heart can go a long way.
Last year, the 30-year-old Woodinville resident left his job as an insurance broker to work full time with Gift of Life International (GOLI), a network that supports the Gift of Life programs offered by Rotary clubs worldwide. GOLI is a program that addresses the needs of children who suffer from congenital heart defects and other similar conditions.
Not only is he working with GOLI as a global ambassador, he was also a Gift of Life recipient. In 1983, Halvorson made headlines when former President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, championed the cause.
They brought Halvorson, then known as Lee Kil Woo, along with another child, Ahn Ji Sook, from Seoul to the United States aboard Air Force One for lifesaving heart surgery.
“For a person of that stature [to get involved] was incredible,” said Halvorson. “It received so much media attention and it boosted the Gift of Life program.”
Soon after his surgery, Halvorson was adopted by a family in Arizona, which accounts for his current name. The family relocated to the Seattle area in 1989.
“After my adoption, I lost touch with everybody [in Korea],” said Halvorson. “My American family kept [the adoption] very low-key.”
A couple years ago, Halvorson attempted to contact Nancy Reagan to thank her for helping in saving his life. Through searches on Google, he was eventually connected to Reagan’s personal assistant at the Reagan Presidential Library.
“You know you’re famous here,” Reagan’s assistant, whom Halvorson declined to name, told
Halvorson over the phone. The assistant was referring to a large photograph of Reagan holding Halvorson and the other Korean child.
“You should’ve seen the look on Mrs. Reagan’s face when I told her,” the assistant said during Halvorson’s next call.
It took several months before he was able to meet Reagan in person. In late 2007, Halvorson was invited to the presidential library for the opening of a new wing. He saw the very plane he was on as a kid.
The next three months unleashed a whirlwind of awakenings that led him to join GOLI.
Halvorson received a call from his biological cousin Eric Kim soon after meeting with Reagan. Kim reconnected Halvorson with his family in Korea.
He was also reintroduced to Gift of Life and the Rotary Club. Halvorson joined the Emerald City Rotary Club and now speaks to Rotary clubs worldwide about the GOLI programs. In 1975, Gift of Life was started by Rotarian Robbie
Donno, when he proposed to his local Rotary Club that they fly a 5-year-old girl from Uganda to New York for an open-heart surgery. Last October, GOLI helped its 10,000th child.
“One in 100 children have a heart defect, and 90 percent of the world doesn’t have access to children’s heart care,” said Halvorson. “My life has come full circle.” He has joined GOLI in its Our Hearts are in Uganda campaign, which aids 300 children by helping them receive heart surgeries.
On May 6, he brought Jane, an 11-year-old girl from Uganda, to Seoul’s Severance Hospital for surgery. South Korea now has the capabilities to perform surgeries that weren’t available when he was a child. He organized the surgery in honor of Reagan. ♦
For more information, visit www.giftoflifeinternational.org.
Irfan Shariff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.