Maria Heissenberger with SOS Children
AUSTRIA – November 26 2020

SOS pioneer Maria Heissenberger remembered

From Austria to South Korea

SOS Children's Villages mourns the loss of Maria Heissenberger, a pioneer who made a significant contribution to the worldwide development of SOS Children's Villages. She was the Austrian who, together with Hermann Gmeiner, built the first SOS Children's Village outside of Europe.

In 1960, having already established a home for children and young people with a colleague in the city of Daegu, Maria Heissenberger was about to take over the planning and management of another orphanage. During her first home vacation to Austria in 1962, she happened to mention to a journalist that she would rather build an SOS Children's Village in Daegu, if she had the money.

As fate would have it, Hermann Gmeiner—the founder of SOS Children's Villages—read this article and contacted Maria. This was the start of the “SOS Children's Villages South Korea” project and the unique “grain of rice campaign” which raised the money to build the village. Once it was built, Maria managed the SOS Children's Village in Daegu from 1963 to 1968.

Her actions in Korea sparked the global expansion of SOS Children’s Villages, which today has more than 550 villages across the globe.

"I always wanted to be me"

Maria Heissenberger was born in Zöbern, Austria on February 8, 1930 into a day laborer's family. After finishing her education, she trained as a church apostolic assistant, but decided not to enter a monastery. "I always wanted to be myself," she later said of her decision.

After her involvement with SOS Children's Villages, she worked in South Korea for another 23 years in the social and educational sector, developing and leading projects. Helping people with tuberculosis was a particularly important cause for her. She founded a tuberculosis clinic in Korea and when she received the highest honor in South Korea, the Minju Sang Prize, she used the prize money to buy a much-needed X-ray machine for the clinic.

To achieve what she wanted to achieve, it took strength and, above all, the will to unconditionally be there for other people.

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