Day at the Orphanage

Just returned from a long, full day at the Lotuschild orphanage, about 20 km to the E of Ulaan Bataar. We’re staying at the Lotus Guesthouse which is designed to support the orphanage, and a Dutch volunteer told us about it, so I emailed and got permission to come for the day, and the full time driver also added me to the list of pickups for today, which was really nice. He came at 7:30 AM and we wound around the city picking up another volunteer, a teacher, and someone else.

First we went through parts of town I haven’t seen – way outside the university area, huge high rise building complexes with thousands and thousands of units and others under construction. They looked like the public housing we used to have in Chicago – too many floors and too close to each other. But, I guess there is a terrible housing crisis and something must be done.

We soon got to the outskirts of town, the “ger district,” and saw sprawling shanty towns with a mixture of gers and shacks and tin roofed tiny homes, interspersed with wandering dogs, children, cows, merchants selling skins out of the back of pickup trucks, and of course men and women going to and from work. The van was rickety and the road nonexistent, yet we forged ahead, as this driver does every day, in the first of about a dozen runs he must make to and from the orphanage.

We arrived at a great walled plot of land with scattered, nice looking buildings and some rakish playground equipment. The large metal gate was swung open and we were let in. (I found out a bit later that the free ride was strictly one way — to get back, the other volunteer and I had to walk more than a mile to catch a bus that went into the city, and it took me to only within about 2 miles of my place. Blisters!)

We arrived just in time to see the morning greeting of the two directors, Will and Angie Rojas, and the children assembled in a circle. Yes, they were just as endearing and poignant as you would imagine, clad in hand-me-downs from the stock room and looking somewhat lost and vulnerable. We were introduced and greeted and then the children headed to their classrooms to do homework and study English. The youngest child was 5 and the eldest about 12 – the teenagers were already at full day secondary school by then, whereas these kids didn’t start till about 1:30 pm.

I drifted into the room with the littlest ones and quickly found that I was filling a hole in the schedule – the regular teacher hadn’t shown up, and several other regulars were not there that day (“Thursday is always our worst day,” said Will.) I thought, great, I can sing songs and read stories…..no such luck. The 7 kids, all kinder/first grade ages with missing front teeth, immediately started pommeling each other with huge stuffed animals, jumping and tumbling about on a minitramp, and rolling each other around on the one chair with wheels. I tried to start a circle time on the floor, making gestures along with singing, and not one kid moved to join me (I later found out that in dusty, dry Mongolia, you just don’t sit on the floor….)! The amount of tumult from these 7 children was beyond belief. I quickly called the other volunteer for reinforcement, and she and I tried to get them to do the hokey pokey, or anything, but they were busy hiding and fighting and opening the big window and hanging precariously out of it. I brought some children’s music CDs and Will started the computer up so we could play them, but the girls ran over and started monkeying with the computer, rendering the music unplayable; other kids grabbed my glasses and started putting them on, and wanted my camera, and took the toilet paper out of my purse! So, we realized we were over our heads – we didn’t know their normal routine and they didn’t really speak English, so we were kind of stuck. A British photographer was there for the day and he took some classic shots of us trying to cope – he said it was hilarious in a “lord of the flies” kind of way.

Mind you, I thought the kids were adorable, and I totally understood the reasons they were going berserk – too many new foreign faces, too many changes, and a chance to break out with the teacher gone! But — it was pretty overwhelming. The late teacher finally showed about about 90 minutes later (or was it a lifetime?) and we slunk out of the room. As we neared lunchtime, we could see that the kids began to get down to work in each classroom…..the 2 Mongolian teachers were able to keep the lid on things and Angie and Will were teaching in the other two classes – and they are adored by all the students.

It would be hard to explain how wonderful Angie and Will are. They explained that they were backpacking around Asia, teaching salsa, when they happened to stay at Lotus Guesthouse and heard about the orphanage. They went there and loved it — this was last year — and starting in September they have signed up as full-time, live-in volunteers for the whole school year!! Both of them are loved and trusted by the kids, and they are the ones who model good behavior and set limits. When we walked about with Will after lunch, seeing the grounds, he stamped out any number of fires of girls and boys who were having emotional storms, with calmness, reasoning, and affection (everyone is “sweetheart” even when he’s correcting behavior). Angie is equally adept at getting through to the kids. They are the orphanage “parents,” even though they are from Colombia and then the US and not that old themselves.

The genius behind the whole project is “Dede,” whom we didn’t get to meet, but this project is her heart and soul – 20 years of devoted work. She is Australian, apparently previously a nun, then changed her affiliations and is Buddhist, but still puts up a christmas tree every winter. She has enlisted the help and support of thousands of volunteers from all over the world (please see the website – you could be one of these volunteers) and solicits in kind as well as cash donations from people and organizations everywhere. Rotary in Australia built the school library; another group sent dozens of high school students to work – it’s a real phenomenon!

So, they run 4 orphanages for a total of 90 children; one is a special needs place, one took over from a French convent, and there are two more. At the facility we visited, there are 58 kids.
I had a chance to give an ESL lesson to three kids in the afternoon, and I made four different “card sets” that teachers can use with their supply of board games. The kids really enjoyed it.

Please check out this extraordinary organization. I may write more of the “fine points” later, but it’s been a loooooong day. Still, “my soul is rested” just seeing such good, loving people on this earth.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Day at the Orphanage

  1. Jeff Winter

    Sounds like a trip of a lifetime. I love reading about the various phases and look forward to more entries. Too bad you couldn’t have your guitar along.

  2. Ayn Keneman

    What a fabulous trip! Thanks for sharing your experiences and adventures. Brings me back to my semester abroad in college at the University of Copenhagen and working in schools in Istanbul. Look forward to more posts. Great that your daughter has this wonderful opportunity with you!

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