Orphan yearns to reach out to others

Conversion a turning point as gospel restored feelings of self-worth, purpose

PERTH, Australia — Mary-Anne Tormey lives in Australia. She has a comfortable home, a close-knit family, runs a successful business and her life is as bright as her personality. But life has not always been this way for the orphan girl from Korea who now works tirelessly to relieve the suffering of Cambodian orphans.

"My father, James Overstreet from Virginia, was a U.S.A. soldier and member of the Horse Calvary," she said. "My father met my mother, Oh Won Lim, who was working at the Army base where he was posted in Inchon, Korea."

Sister Tormey speaks of how her parents fell in love and made a home. Her mother awaited her father's return from the new war in Vietnam, but "My father never made it home. He died in Vietnam and my mother was unable to inherit his estate nor receive any recognition or assistance from the U.S. Army. She was suddenly alone with a 7-year-old Amerasian daughter to raise."

"Korean society did not tolerate mixed relationships, and to be an Amerasian child was the lowest form of cultural insult. My life was of no worth in Korean society even though I knew my mother loved me without condition."

Sister Tormey, now serving as the Gold Coast stake director of public affairs, described how she was an outcast in her own village.

"Walking to school was often painful with verbal slurs, spit, rocks and chamber pots of waste thrown at me by the people of my own village," she recalled. "Children were especially cruel. I learned to develop a hard shell to protect my feelings. I began to build up anger to insulate my pain."

Despite the pain of these years and the confusion she felt, yet did not understand, Sister Tormey found refuge in school with a guiding teacher who cared.

"I worked hard and excelled in school, as it was there that I felt the safest. I had a wonderful teacher in the first grade who nurtured me and protected me and I recall her warmth to this very day. She was perhaps the first person who ever fought for my happiness and well being."

About a year after her father's death and feeling the pressures of Korean society at the time, Sister Tormey's mother heeded advice to place her young daughter in an orphanage for her future benefit.

"I was only 8 years old. I had lived a life of love, nurturing and comfort. All of that changed as I walked into the Star of the Sea orphanage that day with my small, hard-shelled, cream-colored suitcase lined with baby blue quilted satin. This is the little case that my mother had packed my simple dresses in and carried first through the rice paddies, then on a bus, then delivered to the gates of the orphanage. From there a nun took my case and myself through the gates, and then shut them resolutely between my mother and me. I still have this little suitcase. It is a strong symbol of my past, yet it has also become my catalyst for charity. This suitcase symbolizes the relay baton of my life's journey, a race that I am running all the way to my eternal home."

No Korean would adopt her because of her mixed-blood. Nor would the visiting Europeans because she did not have the desired classic Asian look of the other children. "I felt like I was used goods sitting on the shelf next to beautifully wrapped ones," she said. "I began to wonder: 'What is it about me that doesn't measure up?' "

This time of powerlessness without any emotional intimacy or family connections helped plant the seeds of Sister Tormey's determination and resilience that she now uses to the advantage of others.

"I remained in this orphanage until an Australian family decided to adopt me and bring me out to Perth, Australia, in 1970. They already had three sons and wanted a daughter to complete their family. From then I grew up in an average Australian family, but many of the old struggles remained with me and were added to by new struggles that this new challenge presented."

At the age of 15, Sister Tormey began a long search for identity and belonging that took her away from her new home and family and sent her on a journey of discovery.

"I had to find out who I was. I had many unfulfilling jobs that I tired of quickly. I made a return visit to Korea and then went on to the United States. I was quite lost and aimless."

Just before Sister Tormey turned 18, direction and fulfilment started to pour into her life through the humble teachings of two Mormon missionaries.

"This was the turning point in reclaiming my lost soul. I finally had the answers to who I was, why I was here and where I was going in my eternal journey. This knowledge has enriched my life and given me the endowment of peace I longed for, and the forgiveness I needed to let eventually let go of all the rejection and pain in my life."

The need to be accepted and to fit in has been a driving force in her life, said Sister Tormey.

"For a long time, whenever I did anything, I held myself up to a higher standard to prove I was worthy enough to compensate for this legacy of rejection. It took me many years to come to love myself as I am. Church teachings have helped me to now be at peace with myself knowing that although I have made mistakes, they do not define my heart and I can respect myself."

Sister Tormey's heart has now been turned to the plight of other struggling orphans from around the world.

"Returning home from a visit to Cambodia, I knew that the Lord was ready to teach me again, and I found myself promising to do whatever I could to help the Khmer people."

Later, she came across a fellow Australian woman named Geraldine Cox who runs the Sunrise Children's Village orphanage in Phnom Penh.

That orphanage is a home for some 70 children, many of whom have witnessed the death of their parents and have watched helplessly as their families have been torn apart through tragedy.

"There are still many children who are being turned away daily from Cambodian orphanages because of a lack of resources. Geraldine is now struggling to supply five other collapsing government orphanages with rice after their supplies were cut earlier this year. This all started because I wanted to soothe my conscience; but instead it enlarged my soul."

Sister Tormey's memories of her orphanage years helped her to understand what the Savior meant when He said, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (Matthew25:40.)

Sister Tormey now devotes much time to raising funds and awareness for Geraldine Cox's work with the Cambodian orphanages.

"It's easy to recognize myself in this story," she said. "Because I know what life is like as an orphan, I feel the need to invite others to also do something. I want to tell them how the little things they do can mean so much. It's humbling to realize that I may not have affluence, but empowering to know I do have influence. In the absence of everything, all of us can do something."

Sister Tormey said today she is grateful for the uniqueness of her life.

"I choose to be in a position to help others, to raise my children with unconditional love, to help other children, to nurture a family that can be safe from the troubling effects of the world, to make these children feel good about who they are and to know they are of infinite worth because God knows and loves them.

"I often thought my childhood was tough, that God had not protected me, but how blind I was not to see the rich blessings that awaited my life. My Korean mother loved me enough to sacrifice her journey with me for my future happiness, sending me off with my beautiful suitcase, handing me over to God through those orphanage gates.

"I love these Cambodian children enough to work for their future happiness. That's what my journey for now is all about."

• For additional information about Sister Tormey's work with orphan children, please contact: [email protected] or visit

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