From 2006-2012, I looked forward to summertime with anticipation and excitement. It was a privilege and a delight to lead or join teams of volunteers from Hong Kong in traveling to one of my favorite places on the planet, Outer Mongolia. Most years, the teams included my daughter and son, Sarah & Nathan, which made this time even more incredible.
Our goal in going was to come alongside those who run a non-profit organization there, Flourishing Futures. We assisted them in caring for those in need within the capital city of Ulaanbaatar and conducted summer camps in the countryside for children who normally live in a government-run shelter during the year.
As the plane floats above the wide-open spaces, the majesty and beauty of Mongolia rises-up to greet me, with clear vast landscapes of gently rolling hills and grandiose mountain ranges in the distance. Preparing to land, the plane banks to the right and the view takes my breath away. I feel a rush of exhilaration and anticipation flow through me for what lies ahead.
However, there is a shadow of sadness that permeates this beautiful land. Alongside the resplendent landscapes, many natural resources, and incredibly friendly, proud people lies crushing poverty. From this deep poverty, the most innocent and vulnerable suffer.
After landing at the airport, outside Mongolia’s capital city of Ulaanbaatar, we make our way through immigration and pick up our luggage. Exiting the final door into the concourse, we are met by the smiling faces and waiting arms of friends. We greet one another with warm embraces after a year apart. It is a highlight of the trip to see their smiling faces standing in welcome.
The Flourishing Futures team consists of members from Mongolia as well as all over the globe including Singapore, Norway, and the US. These are the heroes, those who live in the country, amid the bitter cold and snow for most of the year, giving their energy and hearts to care for the needs of the people.
While in Ulaanbaatar, assisting with projects in the city or preparing for the week out at camp, the teams stay at a lovely guesthouse, Oasis Café & Guesthouse. It was run by a good friend of mine, Sibylle. Part of the team bunks inside in dorm rooms and part of the team sleeps in gers. One of my favorite points to the trip each year is staying in a ger.
Mongolians who live in the countryside and within the poorest parts of Ulaanbaatar often reside in gers, which are also known as yurts. These type of structures are a common home for many people in Central Asia. The ger is a circular dwelling place, constructed with a wood frame and covered with fabric, which is usually made of wool. The brightly painted doors are a common yet beautiful addition to these dwellings. It is amazing to watch a Mongolian very efficiently and quickly construct a ger.
If the temperature drops, the staff at Oasis Guesthouse build a fire in the wood stove. Even in the summer, it can get chilly at night. Slipping beneath a wool blanket with a toasty fire filling the ger with its warmth is very cozy.
Flourishing Futures run many projects to help the needy who live in the poorest part of Ulaanbaatar. This area is called the Ger District. Running two community centers, they conduct projects that include food distribution, a preschool, and too many other worthy projects to name. For the team over the years, we were involved in digging outhouses, building fences, food distribution, clothing drives, teaching English, fun activities including carnivals for the children living in this district, art classes, and more.
Through this door is one of my favorite people, Shari. She lived “smack dab” in the middle of the Ger District, with her husband and four children for eight years, giving of herself in loving and caring for those in need around her.
In between projects in the city and travel to the countryside for camp, the teams take time to look around.
Cameras in tow, we don the look of a tourist and take in the sites, which always includes a trip to the Central Plaza where a big bronze statue of Chinggis Khan resides.
These sightseeing outings also include a trip to a museum or two. The following photo is of the Bogd Khan Palace Museum.
The staff from a government-run shelter in Ulaanbaatar take the children in their care, normally around one-hundred, out to the countryside for the summer. During the school year, these children live at the shelter. They have either been left by their family who simply are too poor to care for them or they have been picked up off the frigidly cold streets where they struggled to survive.
Every year, these children wait in eager anticipation for the teams to arrive. Flourishing Futures organizes and conducts camps for these waiting children in the countryside.
Traveling in a caravan of cars, trucks, and a big bus, riding through the countryside to camp, I again take in the beauty and majestic landscape that is Mongolia, from a ground view this time. The yawning spaces where sheep and goats roam, where camels and horses trod. The scenery that unfolds in front of me is a significant part of the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the proud Mongolian people.
The wheat and canola fields blow and sway in the wind. The vastness of the Mongolian sky is breathtakingly huge and incredibly blue. Rugged herders on wild horses gallop across the land rounding up livestock. Mongolia is a wild and wonderful place.
The Mongolian kids waiting at camp are tough and possess an indomitable spirit. Even though their backgrounds vary, most of them have experienced the sting of abandonment and great loss. Like all of us, they long for family and close relationships. They desire to be loved. To know someone cares. Each year we go to express that love, seeking to give them the special attention every child wants and needs. Loving them is easy, they are a lovable group of children.
Another goal for the camps is to help create a carefree atmosphere where the kids are given a chance to play and simply be a child for a while.
We hire cooks that travel out to camp with us to provide nutritious meals for the children during these weeks of camp. Most teams include a medical professional who provides medical care as well.
Spending time with the children at camp created some of the most joyful and memorable moments in my entire life. I could fill books about the incredible experiences. As a team, we go with the main goal of showing love to the children. However, most of us return feeling loved instead by the incredible kids we left at camp in Mongolia. We all return to Hong Kong filled with a sense of satisfaction and joy.
I yearn to one day go back. Over the years, I have left parts of my heart in Mongolia with the beautiful people there.
**Photos taken by Melynda Schauer, Tsogtoo Gana, Sarah Cox, and me.
(Inspired by Thursday Doors, hosted by Norm Frampton. For more interesting doors from all around the globe, check it out.)