The week before school kicked off across the country, my friends Sue, Gail, Joan, and Kinna arrived in Darkhan by bus from UB, loaded down with bags full of gifts for children in Darkhan, Khutul, and Nomgon: backpacks filled with the essentials needed to start the school year, new clothes, and hand-knit sweaters for newborns. We had a busy two days ahead of us.
In two days we distributed over 100 backpacks to children whose families struggle to make sure they are equipped with the supplies they need to participate in their classes and study. The children were selected by social workers who work with the families (and caretakers in the cases of the orphaned children) to make sure that their needs are being met, and who urge parents to get their children to schools when schools are available to them. If a family can’t afford to get their child to school, the child stays at home, and children without school supplies struggle in their classes – if they go at all.
Sue and the crew in UB collected donations from abroad and in town to put together nearly all of the bags that were handed out. They hit up Narantuul for the best deals on supplies in bulk, bought brand new bags, and spent days putting them all together. Friends and family from the U.S. to Australia, and many points in between, made it all possible.
The call for getting in on the backpack project continued until our day of delivery on the 26th, and donations poured in until the very end. The money that wasn’t spent on bags in UB was brought to Darkhan, along with extra supplies, to put together even more backpacks in Darkhan.
Once the ladies from UB were fueled up with lunch, we headed out to Nomgon, with Bilgee along for translation help and cousin Otgoo driving a second vehicle to carry our UB crew and their loot for the kids, to meet the children in Nomgon.
Nomgon is about 40 km outside of Darkhan, on the road to Erdenet, and Khutul lies just beyond it. They are both small soums (although Khutul is far more developed) and offer schooling to children from the surrounding countryside. Things are difficult for families in the area this year. Many people in the area rely on seasonal work with the agriculture companies growing wheat and rapeseed on the surrounding steppe. With the agriculture companies taking a hit, so have their seasonal workers.
Khutul and Nomgon are also where herders who have lost their livestock and given up pastoral life come to settle down. They have better access to welfare and state services residing there, but they struggle to find steady employment.
After putting in the call to the governors of Nomgon and Khutul, they assigned their school directors and social workers with finding the children who were in greatest need of the backpacks and school supplies. We ended up giving bags to 66 children. The Nomgon coordinators got the kids lined up and we called them forward by grade, getting bags filled with supplies to children starting kindergarten, all the way up to 10th graders.
We were also able to get some new clothes to a few children in especially hard hit families, as well as giant sacks of flour to some single-parent families with multiple children and households led by seniors living off of pensions. It was a day filled with gratitude and grace on all sides.
Sue and her friends have formed a special friendship with the children and directors of the Shonkhoodoi Circus School in Darkhan, so after stocking up on more supplies for bags to be handed out the next day in Batlion, a ger district in Darkhan, we also popped in to the circus rehearsal space.
The space is a tiny room at the Zaluuchuud Theatre in Darkhan, where 30 kids practice circus arts. The school is a second home for many children without a home at all, and it gives these amazing kids – who have loving hearts of gold – a chance to shine and nurture their performance skills. They’re like a family, and they are some of the kindest and most talented children in Mongolia. We met up with some of the children to deliver bags and snacks and to get an update on how they fared in Mongolia’s Got Talent. Sadly, they were told they’d be moving on to the third round of competition, but they got the rug pulled out from under them. Maybe a good thing in the end for the competition, because they would have put everyone else to shame!
The next morning we were up early to visit Darkhan’s children and maternity hospital, where Sue and friends have bought blackout curtains and more for the patient rooms and exam rooms over the past year. The last batch of curtains were in and ready to be installed in the maternity ward, so we stopped by to say hello and drop off a mountain of hand-knit newborn jumpers for the brand new babies who were still in the maternity ward.
After that we jetted over to Batlion, where social worker Ganchimeg had rounded up some of the children from the families she works with who were most in need of school supplies. Before we went up to her office, as the children were still walking in, she told us that she had just been speaking to many of the parents and guardians of the children who were arriving. It’s her job to make sure that the children are provided with what they need, and to make sure that they attend the school in the district. Many of the parents said they were struggling to get things together for them, so she was so happy when she got the call from my husband that we had backpacks to distribute.
We had done the first backpack project in Darkhan two years ago, and Gamchimeg told the children to be sure to politely thank us for their bags, so that maybe we’d come back again next year. The smiles on their faces when they each got their bags was all the thanks needed.
This was an amazing two days to be a part of, and it’s all thanks to Sue, who got this idea rolling, gathered up the funds, and got the bags together. Our hope is to do it again next year and get bags into the hands of even more children who need them. Being able to make a small difference to get these kids off to the right start this school year
Michelle Borok is an American living in Darkhan, Mongolia, with her husband and daughter. She moved to Mongolia from Los Angeles in 2012. When she's not editing The UB Post, SoWhyMongolia, or writing, she's spending time in the countryside with her Mongolian family.