Meet Lee Jong Yu, The Youth Counselor In Korea Who Spends His Time Helping Troubled Teens

He’s their friend, their dad, and their hero.

Lee Jong Yu is a youth counselor in South Korea, often referred to as “the Youth Protector” or “Mr. Popeye”, patrols neighborhoods in search of troubled or lost kids out of a sense of duty to help them and become a reliable friend.

He met with Yunjee, a reporter from Asian Boss, to discuss his passion for helping troubled youth.

When asked to explain exactly what he does, Jong Yu expressed clearly that he doesn’t consider what he does as a “job”, but rather that he feels like a protector of teens and children.

At least part of the reason as to why he wants to help children is because he recalls what it was like when he was young and going through puberty, he would often rebel against his parents.

He realized later, as an adult, that children just need a good and safe environment when they’re growing up.

Although he calls himself “the Youth Protector”, children often refer to him as “Mr. Popeye”, a nickname he reveals he got seven years ago from a middle school student.

The teen had told him that he should eat spinach and protect them like Popeye.

Yunjee asks exactly what he means by protecting, and he clarifies that because he knows what it’s like not to have a safe space where he could be himself and let out his feelings, he wants to provide that kind of safe haven for today’s youth.

Jong Yu shared what we all know—that children face many problems in life, such as being bullied at school, violence in school, domestic violence, or even abuse at home, leading them to want to run away. He provides them a safe space to air their thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment or retribution.

If they have any concerns like those, they’ll reach out to me, and they’ll tell me about their problems at home or with their friends. Or maybe a problem such as an upperclassman at school bullying them for money. Some will say things like, ‘I don’t want to continue living. I just want to die.’ Those are a lot the concerns kids have.

—Lee Jong Yu

Yunjee inquires as to how he gets close to teens and children, to which he explained he simply treats them as equals!

So I’m able to get close with them and listen to their concerns and true feelings.

—Lee Jong Yu

Jong Yu shared that although he’s gotten a bit lazy these days (which is understandable, given his age) but in the past, he’d go out and patrol every day until dawn looking for troubled youth the help.

Jong Yu buys Choco Pies to give out to children because the packaging has the word “affection” on it and he wants to express his care and love for them in that way. As actions speak louder than words, we’re sure the youth who experience Jong Yu’s kindness can feel his sincerity through his actions.

Up until now, I’ve given out around 90,000 Choco Pies to kids.

—Lee Jong Yu

Jong Yu goes around asking youth he comes across if they’d like a Choco Pie. Of course, they respond in the positive, because who turns down free Choco Pie?

When he gives them the Choco Pie, he asks them why they’re out so late and expresses concern for their wellbeing.

He asks which members of the group were smoking but expresses that he’ll forgive them if they’re honest and give them all Choco Pies.

The group of teens jokingly asks if they can have a box of Choco Pie each. As Jong Yu hands them one each, he encourages them to make healthy lifestyle choices.

He emphasizes the importance of honest and again, encourages them to make healthy choices.

Upon visiting an Internet café, he finds an underage youth with a pack of cigarettes. The teen reveals that he’s two months away from being legal, which… It still meant what he was doing was legally wrong.

Yunjee inquires about him being caught with cigarettes…

… To which he responds that he’s 17 and Mr. Popeye has been watching out for him since middle school. The teen reveals that he first met Mr. Popeye around the time he was in 8th grade and saw at the front gate of his school to bring awareness to anti-bullying.

Acknowledging that smoking underage is wrong, as well as bad for his health, the anonymous teen thinks about quitting smoking.

Jong Yu shares that when his eldest son hit puberty, he wanted to understand what he was going through, and he did that by getting to know his friends.

… I started talking to them one by one.

—Lee Jong Yu

His eldest son is 20 years old now, so it was about ten years ago that he began doing this. For the first two years, he operated using his own personal funds using secret funds his wife didn’t know about.

I operated using my personal funds for a little over 2 years. I had some secret funds, which my wife didn’t know about. I eventually spent all of it helping kids. I felt bad toward my wife and kids for that. I did try my best to take care of my family in my own way. My boys are still upset about the fact that I took care of other kids more than my own.

—Lee Jong Yu

Unfortunately, because of the strain caused by his efforts to take care of other, less fortunate children, his children were understandably upset with him.

He told me that he was embarrassed of it, especially in front of his friends. I don’t think he felt very free because of me. Because whatever he did, he was always judged by others because his dad was Mr. Popeye.

—Lee Jong Yu

When asked about any difficulties he experienced, he responded that he was often misunderstood. People assumed he had ulterior motives for helping the kids, like running for a political office.

His eldest son is in the army now and his youngest is in high school, while his wife actually works as a government official. So, although he’s well-known and has made TV appearances, he makes a conscious effort not to do anything to embarrass them.

Despite this, he understands it’s natural to be suspicious and admits that as he has a foster daughter, he would also be alarmed or concerned if a stranger tried to get close to her because the world we live in is very dangerous and full of dangerous people.

He tends to find kids on the street and help them out as best he can. Often, kids that he’s helped in the past refer their friends to him.

They’d call me when they needed help. There are actually a lot of kids who call me Dad. And around 3 or 4 years ago, I got a message late at night, maybe a little after 2 am. It was a very long message. A teen had written about her family situation. She said that her mother was only 15 when she gave birth to her. Her mother was only 15 when she got pregnant. And that teen said she missed her dad. I was heartbroken when I heard her story. So we talked to each other on the phone for about an hour and a half. And then I asked, ‘How about I become your dad?’ And she said, ‘Could you please?’

—Lee Jong Yu

His foster daughter Byun Da Jung shared that she had been living independently since middle school and that her aunt was unable to support her financially, so she encouraged her to contact Mr. Popeye through Facebook.

When I was a child, my father… He… Well, he left us. My parents got divorced. And so I messaged Mr. Popeye and told him about my situation. After we got to know each other and got close, he said he would be like a foster father to me.

—Byun Da Jung

Although they’re not related, she’s thankful for his presence in her life because she’s had to work to support herself since middle school, without the support of family.

So even though we’re not related by blood, he has done a lot for me, and he’s really like a dad to me.

—Byun Da Jung

He even went so far as to help her get medical. Needless to say, she calls him “dad” because he is!

Even though I don’t have a father, he tells me he will be one for me. So he… really is… like an actual father to me.

—Byun Da Jung

Wrapping things up, Yunjee asks what his core reason for helping children are, and ultimately, he sums it up by saying that he doesn’t want children to end up like him.

I told them I didn’t study hard and that I dropped out of middle school. And also that I was taken to the police station several times. But the kids would say, ‘But you ended up just fine.’ And I tell them that I didn’t end up fine. So… I just don’t want them to go down the same path I did.

—Lee Jong Yu

Jong Yu revealed that he ran away from home many times and that his father passed away when he was in 6th grade.

… I ended up hanging out with these delinquent kids. That’s when I started smoking cigarettes. I eventually ended up getting into more trouble, and I would even steal food when I was hungry. I did a lot of bad things once I became a teenager.

—Lee Jong Yu

After being asked about the turning point in his life, he tells Yunjee that he ended up going to juvenile prison.

That was a terrible place. I felt like this was not a place that a human should enter. So I swore to myself that I would never do anything that would bring me back there again.

—Lee Jong Yu

As for his message to students? If they’re in trouble, they can reach out to him.

I’ll listen to you and help you out. I’ll be your dad. I’ll be your friend. I’ll come running over. I want to be a friend you can lean on.

—Lee Jong Yu