Young Sook Leads a Youth Movement for Smiles

Her life is her greatest opus

Young Sook with her 2023 student musicians

For the past 15 years, Young Sook Kang has raised more than $100,000 for Smile Train by inspiring aspiring young musicians across Orange County, CA, to harmonize their musical gifts with their passion for making a difference.

To honor a decade and a half of changing the world one sonata at a time, we asked this South Korea-born piano teacher and classical pianist to share her story with us. We think she will inspire you as much as she inspires her students and us.

Selfie of Young Sook at her piano
Young Sook Kang

I’ll always remember checking the mail that day in 2008. I received a flyer featuring a picture of a child with a cleft and immediately thought of my aunt, who had a cleft palate during the Korean War. She always covered her mouth because of it. She lived isolated from society and was single until she died.

It was from Smile Train. That was the first time I had heard of them. I next saw Smile Train on signs when I visited New York City a little while later. I decided to donate some money.

The next year, one of my high school students was fundraising for another cleft charity and asked me how she could do it better. I wanted to help her, but I wasn’t as familiar with this other organization. I started researching them and came away even more impressed by Smile Train and their model of empowering local medical professionals to provide cleft treatment instead of sending outside doctors into other countries on mission trips.

I had been involved with many musical events as director and jury member, so we organized a benefit concert for Smile Train.

It was an amazing experience. The performers did an incredible job, and it was received well by the community. Most thrillingly, we raised $3,600 at our first concert!

The success of this event made me want to do more for Smile Train. I contacted them to ask how we could best help, and they suggested working with my students to start high school clubs.

I thought that was a very good idea. In Southern California, high school students need 25 hours of community service each year to graduate, so joining a Smile Train club would make this cause of interest to more students, not only musicians.

That was how Smile Train Orange County (OC) was formed in 2009. We now have chapters in 10 high schools across the region.

Share Your Love, Share Your Joy, Share Your Chopin

When I set up auditions every year after, I not only evaluate students based on their musical skills, I also interview them to see why they are interested in joining Smile Train OC.

I tend to focus on students who are in eighth or ninth grade. They usually don’t know much about outreach/community service, so I try to teach them through our club meetings first about volunteerism, and second, how to share your talents or time or, especially, your love with someone else who doesn’t have what you do. I teach them to take nothing for granted, that you can share your everything and when you do, your joy comes through.

Through Smile Train OC, talented students learn to work at their craft not solely for their own self-status or benefit but also to help others.

“The ability to create valuable relationships with other individuals while contributing to a global cause through my passion through Smile Train is the greatest honor.”

- John Yang, senior clarinetist, University High School (Irvine, CA)

That is a good motivator! These students are the best! They work hard in preparation for a whole year. Also, I always get great support from their parents for all the things that go into the concert, on top of their generous donations. I’m really grateful for them.

Young Sook with 2023’s performers on stage, holding their instruments
Young Sook with 2023’s performers on stage, holding their instruments

The benefit concert is different each September. I like to move it to venues around Orange County. The set list always changes, too. There is a lot of classical music, but we always have a lot of non-classical music, too, like pops and things that appeal to a wider audience.

Every year, 100 to 300 people come out to see it, and we record everything so no one ever has to miss it even if they can’t attend live.

Students feel amazing when we open up our donations after the concert. This year, we raised $15,460 with one concert, and the best part is that it came, as it always does, through people donating $15 or $20.

“My experience with Smile Train has been a wonderful ride….Thanks to Smile Train’s exceptional program and the support of talented musicians, I got to play a diverse range of music. Through Smile Train, I’ve learned the true essence of volunteering. I’m grateful for the opportunity to spread smiles across the world. Thank you.” 

– Jiin Yun, senior cellist, Orange County School of the Arts

After the concert each year, I tell the students to make a thank-you card to send to all the donors: their relatives, their teachers, or community. And then we celebrate! We have a wrap-up party and a new members’ welcoming party, and then we start planning in November already for next year’s concert.

Evenings to Remember

Young Sook with Adina Lescher at Smile Train headquarters
Young Sook with Adina Lescher, Smile Train’s Vice President for Community Development, at Smile Train Headquarters in New York in 2023

Some years’ concerts were particularly memorable. In 2019, to commemorate our 10th anniversary concert, Adina Lescher, Smile Train’s Vice President for Community Development, flew here from New York to address the audience. That really impressed me and meant a lot to the students.

Of course, the two pandemic years were also very memorable. We did not cancel the concert for those years — the students had worked too hard. Instead, we did practice sessions over FaceTime and we made a video of students collaborating together wearing masks. It didn’t affect our fundraising performance, amazingly. We made almost $10,000!

Though it was successful, I still kind of felt sorry for the performers since they could not perform in person then or in 2021. So that’s why in 2022, I had an alumni concert featuring students who graduated from the first year. Now people ask me when there will be another alumni concert!

“I am so grateful to share my music in order to help these children with clefts.

- U.N. Vo, senior pianist, Beckman High School (Irvine, CA)

Always an Encore, Never a Coda

I never imagined that I would celebrate 15 years. Always after every concert, I think this will be the last one because I am getting older and the work is getting harder and people have such high expectations from the performers and it’s getting more and more difficult to find a venue that will fit the size of the audiences who now come.

Young Sook with the many volunteers who made the 2023 concert possible
Young Sook with the many volunteers who made the 2023 concert possible

“It’s such an honor to be part of a program in which not only do I get to work with such phenomenal musicians, but I’m also able to help a wide variety of people while sharing my art.”

-Alice Baik, sophomore pianist/vocalist, Northwood High School (Irvine, CA)

But then, every year, after I finish the concert, I hear from everyone, “Oh, it’s amazing, you have to continue to do it.” And audiences, especially talented young musicians in sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth grade, say, “I want to be the chair. Can I help, can I spread this?”

I also watch a lot of Smile Train videos. They break my heart.

So that’s why I’m still going after 15 years. In the end, it really is my joy.

I’m so grateful that Smile Train OC has raised more than $100,000 for Smile Train so far. I cannot take credit for it; it’s happened indirectly through me. It’s only thanks to the students using their time, talents, and dedication, along with their parents and the whole community, to transform children’s futures and give a smile back.

I am so glad we have been able to make a difference, and I send thanks to everyone involved.

You, too, can turn your passions into more life and more smiles for children in need around the world.