After knowing that Martin and I would split up for a while (because he was cycling through Mongolia) I started looking into what I could be doing. First my eyes were set in southern China, but soon I decided that I wanted to go to Mongolia after all and spend my time there. I was looking at 6-8 weeks where I could be useful as a volunteer in Ulaanbaatar.
After searching on the internet I had found multiple organizations that looked interesting for me. I was looking to spend my time useful, learning, getting out of my comfort zone and contributing to the organization. I know there is a lot of talk about voluntourism and I would always be very wary if I would have to pay money to volunteer and I was interested to know more before investing my time in any project. While volunteering you can’t save the world. It is also important not to take a space that can be filled by a local as a job, but still fresh eyes can mean a lot for an organization and sometimes it just helps to be there. Please ask these questions before you start to volunteer anywhere. I was also looking into options where I could use my experience in guiding young students while thinking about there future steps (which I had done in my previous job).
So eventually I had a positive reply from two organizations and because I got to know some people in the city while I was in Ulaanbaatar more opportunities arose.
You can find photos of these projects here: Volunteer Projects Ulaanbaatar.
The first organization where I started was at The Peak Sanctuary, part of Veloo Foundation. They started a small scale kindergarten in the north-west of Ulasnbaatar on the edge of the city and recently they had the chance to expand because of the donation of a new building. At the moment there are 100 children at this kindergarten in the age of three to five years old. The mission of the sanctuary is: “A project designed to help alleviate the suffering and neglect of the most vulnerable and marginalized children in an Ulaanbaatar neighborhood whose residents make a living and feed and clothe their families with items scavenged from the rubbish dump.”
If this kindergarten was not here the children would either be home alone, because their parents would be scavenging at the garbage dump, or they would be at the garbage dump together with their parents. Also in the last few years 17 babies have been found at the garbage dump, most of these have been taken to orphanages, four of them have been raised by the people who found them and are at the kindergarten now. The Sanctuary is at the edge of the city close to the garbage dump and in the ger district.
As it is now there is no running water yet. The organization is working on further development. A vocational school has started and there is a plan to build a shower house and to install a septic tank. The children at the kindergarten come to the center everyday and go home every night. Most of the teachers at the sanctuary have received a chance to be a teacher. Previously some of them had been working at the dump and now slowly they are being educated, first as assistant teacher and finally to be a proper kindergarten teacher. The foundation is run by a Canadian woman, Julie Veloo, who would like the kindergarten to be an example kindergarten in Mongolia. There is still some work to do but slowly they are getting there, education is improving and already they are providing an important safe haven and food for the children. Every year the foundation organizes a fundraiser in the form of the Gobi Gallop, together with Horse Trek Mongolia. If you’re interested it is definitely worth looking into this. Also when traveling to Mongolia and opting for a Horse Trek I can definitely recommend this organization. The area is beautiful and the Mongolian horses are well looked after.
The second organization that I have been involved in is Flourishing Future. This organization runs a community centre in a ger district east of the city, they have built a second community center that they are bringing into action and they have a girls shelter. At the community center they provide scholarships for students to be able to study and activities that benefit the whole organization. “Flourishing Future’s aim was to seek out families in the ger district slums of Mongolia’s capital city that were on the verge of losing their child to the street and stop it before it happened”. The organization started in 2001 and is led by an American couple, Troy and Shari Tvrdik. They also blog about their experiences living in the ger district. At the community centre I have given a presentation about our trip with some of the most important lessons we have learned. The presentation was for a group of around 20 of their scholarship students. My main activities however have been at the girls shelter.
While I have been at the shelter there were seven girls between ages of eight to fifteen. All these girls gave been found and reported at one point and most of them have parents. In most cases the girls have run away from their parents because they felt in danger. Often abuse and usually alcohol abuse was involved with one or both of the parents. The girls have been found on the streets and prostitution has been part of their lives for most of them. The goal of the shelter is to provide a safe haven for the girls, educate them (most haven’t had education properly before), work with their parents and to make it possible for the girls to return to their parents in one to two years. Here I have also shared my story, talked about culture and traditions, helped out with English class, did exercises to increase self-esteem and about personal values and we did a crochet class together. The time spent with them has been very special and I have really noticed that slowly we developed a relationship and they started to trust me more and more. I hope all these girls find their place in life and grow up to be great confident girls.
The final project I have been working on was at Lotus Children’s Centre. This center is the project that receives most volunteers in Ulaanbaatar and has been running since 1995. “From providing basic care for vulnerable and abused children, Lotus has now developed and also focuses on providing a good education, independence and life skills training to secondary school children as well as continuing to provide primary care.” The location of the centre is beautiful just outside of the city in a village called Gachuurt. The centre also runs a guesthouse in town which provides a first step for the older children to work. At this centre I was asked to provide a personal leadership course for a group of the older girls. This was a real challenge. Not only was it a new age group for me (I had previously done this with students and recent graduates in the Netherlands), we also had to deal with language, teenage feelings and different culture.
The girls enjoyed the interactive activities and learning more about themselves and each other. The course was successful but I think both me and the girls learned a lot and logistic at the children’s center were quite difficult at times. I hope they will be able to pursue their goals (which are great and daring) and follow their dreams. The hard life in Mongolia has definitely shaped them and hope they can use their attitude for the better!
So the two months in Mongolia have been a great learning curve and a great possibility to live for a while in an ex-soviet country that hasn’t been exposed to a lot of outside influences yet. Although this will definitely happen in the future, it is already happening. If you have any questions with regards to any of these projects and you would like an insiders point of view, please contact me.