BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Birthday celebrations are usually a time when kids get excited about all the gifts they receive. But for Bloomington resident Thomas Park Clement, his first birthday party in the United States was a little different.
His adoptive parents threw a party, and the neighborhood kids came with gifts for him.
This was a first for Mr. Clement, and while the other kids played and ate cake, he pushed his gifts into a corner and guarded them. This reaction, Mr. Clement said, could be attributed to the time he spent in an orphanage in South Korea where it was rare to have something to call one’s own.
“When you live in an orphanage, absolutely nothing is yours,” Mr. Clement said. “The clothes you wear are not yours; you have no possessions.”
While his early years in the United States were challenging, his journey across the world as part of one of the first group of American-Korean adoptees was a positive one, and it is because of that good fortune that the CEO of Mectra Labs Inc., a medical device manufacturer in Bloomfield, feels it is only fitting to give back to others like him, having received so much himself.
“I like to think the meaning of life is to find your gift, and the purpose of life is to give it away,” Mr. Clement said.
One of his most recent contributions was $1 million to cover the costs for other American-Korean adoptees and war veterans to submit DNA tests to 23andMe, a genomics and biotechnology company capable of performing ancestry searches for individuals.
Mr. Clement said adoptees interested in finding their biological parents and relatives do not always have the funds to do so. Providing them access to the DNA kits gives them a chance to reconnect with a part of their culture they thought was lost, Mr. Clement said.
“I just never realized the emotional side of this,” Mr. Clement said. “A lot of the adoptees have felt isolated, and through the test felt connected for the first time.”
Yet the donation to 23andMe is only one of the philanthropic endeavors he is involved in.
Mr. Clement said he stays abreast of the issues Korean adoptees are facing and when possible, he lends a hand. Assistance could be paying for a family’s trip to Korea, contributing to other fundraising events for the adoptees or sharing his story at different events.
“It is gratifying,” Mr. Clement said.
One of his earlier efforts was organizing a humanitarian mission to North Korea.
He took with him several surgical instruments, which he showed a number of surgeons in the country how to use. In a documentary made about his life, Mr. Clement said he wanted to do it because he believes there is only one Korea — all deserving of help.
A remarkable journey
Born in the middle of the Korean War, the last memory Mr. Clement has of his biological mother is on a street corner.
He was around 4 1/2 years old, and she instructed him to walk down the street and not turn around. Mr. Clement said he spent time living on the streets before a Methodist missionary nurse discovered him and placed him in an orphanage. He was adopted two years later by Richard and June Clement, who then were living in North Carolina.
“I thought I went to sleep and woke up stupid,” Mr. Clement said about arriving on U.S. soil, unable to understand anything that was being said.
It was an insecurity that he did not overcome until his collegiate years. At the time he came to America, Mr. Clement said, not many people could point to Korea on a map, much less understand him. As the son of an American GI and a Korean woman, he was subject to prejudice in Korea for being biracial, and it would continue even when he was in America.
But Mr. Clement said his American family members treated him as if he were their biological son. They never talked about South Korea when he was growing up.
Mr. Clement said it was just a sentiment of the era; but he believes it was for the best. Also, for many of the first group of adoptees, reminiscing meant recalling some tough memories about the war, he said.
Mr. Clement would eventually make his way to Indiana and attend Purdue University, where he would earn a degree in electrical engineering. After graduating, he found work as an inventor with a medical device company before founding Mectra Labs in Bloomfield in 1988.
Mr. Clement said it is important for him to continue to support the Korean adoptees.
Yet despite helping others reconnect with their biological families, he said he has no plans of searching for his own birth mother. Mr. Clement said he just wishes the best for her wherever she may be.
Source: The (Bloomington) Herald-Times, https://bit.ly/1J4Lizg
Information from: The Herald Times, https://www.heraldtimesonline.com
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