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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Unexpected Happenstance - Her Excellency meets the Children of the Peak...and we get a Medal??





I've been waiting...and waiting...and waiting....

I wanted to share with you all the wonderful, special visit that we had with Her Excellency, Mrs. Sharon Johnston up at the Children of the Peak Sanctuary back in November, but I really also wanted to include a shot of...

.....US...
getting the Governor General's Award for 
"creating civil society linkages between Canada and Mongolia".  

It was an amazing honour - and a  what a surprise!!  I am still pinching myself!  This is something I would never ever have imagined happening to us! 

More about the medal in a  bit - but first, let's have a look at the visit and how I got to find out that Her Excellency, Mrs. Sharon Johnston is truly a great human being and why it is that she jumped up with us after the first official shot so she could be in the other official shot!




So...here is how the visit started...

It started out like any other day - well actually not really.  Not really like any other day at all...today was the day that we were going to be honoured by the visit of the dynamic wife of Canada's Governor General, two Canadian Members of Parliament and a whole raft of media and security personnel.  And no one at the centre knew it yet....although I have to say, I think the parents were getting a bit suspicious when they arrived to drop off the children and found a whole flotilla of "management" (including me) in the centre frantically organizing and arranging desks.  What the parents didn't know is I had just had a meeting with the teachers, the security guard, the cooks and the cleaner to tell them all that the "important" visitor who was coming today was, in fact, the Queen of Canada. Ok, Ok... so I  know she is not, in fact the Queen of Canada, but I was doing this all in Mongolian and for some reason my vocabulary doesn't quite stretch to "Constitutional Monarchy" and I didn't have time for a detailed lecture on our political system.  So - Queen of Canada she became.  Poor teachers!!  I had purposely not told anyone because I really wanted Her Excellency to see the "real" centre.  I didn't want anyone dressed up and I knew if the parents knew that we were having such a high ranking visitor the children would all show up in their one  fancy Tsagan Sar outfit...and it wouldn't look like the Children of the Peak at all!  Hence..the somewhat deadly surprise for the poor assistant teachers who have been doing such a valiant job of keeping the centre running....in the absence of the promised Professional Teachers from the state...but that is another story.  It was lovely though, after I had told them, I stepped outside for a few minutes and when I came back in, they were all around the corner...putting on make up!!  
The day began as all the days at the centre do - happy kids playing with toys.  They, of course, had no idea that they were about to be the subject of the highest level visit from a Canadian Government Official to Mongolia...in history.
Some things about working up at the Sanctuary are just too wonderful.  This is one of them.  The day of the visit we still had snow hard frozen on the ground from a snowfall the previous week - but the day was shaping up to be a warm one and as the morning progressed, the snow on the playground was melting...and making the walk way that Her Excellency and her staff would have to walk into a huge mud soup!!  Mongolian industriousness to the rescue.  Our security guard ( who was still walking around with eyes agog and mouth open at the fact that he was going to be liaising with the highest level of both Mongolian and Canadian security later in the day!) set about breaking up the snow, and two of our teachers came out to help rake away the mud and fill in the area with sand from the other side of the playground.....I'm pretty sure when they showed up, not one of the delegates imagined that an hour earlier the walk way had been impassable.  Phew....
We did have a little run through with the kids as to what was going to happen later in the day...because rehearsing with 3 to 5 year olds is so useful..  Not so much.  But it made the teachers feel better about what was coming.
I was so happy that my husband Chelvan, our son Jacob, and Sue Crews the Executive Director of the Foundation ( and our emerging spokesperson!  Nice job on the official video Sue ...see below!)  were all able to be there for this wonderful, special day!
We even had time to play with the children before the visit!  I'm not sure who had more fun...but I am suspecting it was us!


You could say this is a basic lesson in counting... one, two, three....or a basic lesson in waiting your turn or, perhaps, more accurately, crowd control so the poor child at the bottom of the slide has a chance to disembark before the next one in line does it for him!  

And this is how you know for sure that our Sanctuary is, in fact, in Mongolia.  While waiting for the visit from the "Queen" we have a teacher sanctioned wrestling match between the 4 & 5 year old boys.  Yes, these are boys - they just aren't old enough yet for their "head shaving" ceremony...but that's another blog! ( literally...I wrote a blog about it in www.myinternationaldepartures.com...)

I'm pretty sure we can all figure out how old she is....






Jacob having fun with the gang!


...And Chelvan getting in on the action.  







But then the official started showing up...or at least that's what I thought.  It turns out that these guys are... Fire Marshals...Yes, you got that correct, the Fire inspection that we had been waiting for .....since JUNE...suddenly has to happen today!! It was pretty funny really - but in the end excellent because we got a promise from the fire marshall to come out and give our staff lessons on using the fire extinguishers and the like  - something we very much need!



Finally at about 12:00 the real security folks started showing up.  Much to the delight and amazement of the kids!  Actually, I was a little worried that it was going to create quite a lot of havoc with everyone from the neighbourhood showing up to find out what was going on but, as I learned later, they were all too freaked out about the sudden presence of 30 or 40 policemen in a neighbourhood that usually doesn't have any...so they stayed home!
The kids were just chillin'...
....and waiting....
And then finally, she arrived!  I had a lovely chance to talk to her and the Members of Parliament, Wai Young and Scott Simms.  What a truly delightful lady Her Excellency is! She was direct and conscise and asked tons of relevant and important questions...
..and had cool shoes to boot!
While we were outside discussing the reasons for the problems in our community and what the Veloo Foundation / Children of the Peak  are doing to address these problems, the kids were inside with the teachers ( and our cooks!) waiting to for the dignitaries to come in so they could sing the Mongolian National anthem.  Very very cute!!
Her Excellency then proceeded to read the story " My Little Round House" to the kids  - a very endearing tale of the first year of life of a nomadic baby in Mongolia...we had worked on the vocabulary and the subject matter was very much the fabric of the children's lives, so they took to it like ducks to water...or Mongolian kids to gers...or something like that!
Just as an aside...she's not very tall...really, I am NOT a giant...seriously...

And then she was reading...and even learning about Mongolian culture from the story as she pointed out herself!
Some of the kids were showing that they had missed their nap that day...
Then it was play time with the kids!! This is when it became clear that she really loves children!  She was so down to earth and engaged and really interested in what they were doing and how they were learning.  Lovely!
While the kids were building blocks with Scott Simms , Member of Parliament,  and pasting together little people and their deels, Sue was outside being a spokesperson for the foundation ... gorgeous!
The kids had fun showing MP Scott Simms and MP Wai Young their miniature ger - complete with furniture & animals and fences they were building themselves to complete their Owol jaa ... winter place.

Her Excellency is certainly a 'hands-on' official - the kids had no idea that they were playing with a the Canadian "queen"!
 Wai Young, Member of Parliament,  with one of our gorgeous little girls!
Working together: making "family members"...grandmas, grandpas, aunts, sibling....etc. etc.  Such fun exploring families!


One of our bright sparks..he was loving the attention!

And then it was time to give Her Excellency the gift from the children....complete with the traditional offering of a Hadag (spelling?) , the blue scarf that is so important when giving an official gift in Mongolia.
And here it is... each of the children decorated a ger to look like "their" ger and then we put it all together to look like the community up at the peak...and it does look more or less like our wonderful hillside community.  In real life, it's not quite so colourful and cheerful looking - but we're working to make the community match the children's representation of it!  And, now it's hanging at Rideau Hall in Ottawa!  

Then it was time for the Canadian Government to gift the Children of the Peak with a whole selection of arts & crafts supplies, toys, and Books, Books, Books!! Thank you, thank you, thank you!! 
Here's the whole gang!  I love the little girl squatting at the front checking out "her" ger!

Time to say a fond farewell !! We were so happy to have the whole contingent from the Government of Canada  come along and see what we are all about! It was so nice to meet them ALL!


...some of the kids didn't want to share the new books...
.. but it did make for a very quiet afternoon after they left...
So...here's the cool thing...we took this photo to show which child made which ger....and so in the future, they will know that their work is gracing the halls of the official residence of the Governor General of Canada!  As for me, I am honoured to say that I have  actually met (and gotten to know a bit)  these two lovely people who are such excellent representatives of Canada, and even more honoured to know that Mrs. Johnston was impressed enough with our work up at the sanctuary that as we received the medal, she ran  to the front of the stage and hopped up to be in the second "official" photo.  


For me, this is the official photo.  It means that much more to me to have had Her Excellency share in the joy (and surprise!!) that receiving this medal entailed especially after having shared such a wonderful afternoon together up at the peak!

OH...but the story doesn't end there ( no matter how much you wish it would!)...here's where you find out about the Mongolian tradition of "washing" a medal.  Literally...

 Of course, "washing" is best done with alcohol...right?  Right?? Well, I didn't know it before, but it turns out that my steadfast Mongolian friends were going to take the opportunity to teach me  that the appropriate celebration to commemorate such an auspicious event is to place the medal in a cup, cover it with vodka...
 and then...you got it....drink up !!  I think it has something to do with taking the honour and good fortune associated with receiving the medal into your body so that it forms part of your futute....or something like that anyway!!
 Of course, everyone who receives the medal gets to ( has to?) participate...sooooo
 Not only me, but the venerable President of the Veloo Foundation, my husband, Chelvan, also took the opportunity to celebrate the medal , Mongolian Style...hey, do you think this is what they meant by "creating civil society linkages"....? I suspect not...

In any case, being fortunate enough to recieve one on the ten medals minted for this occasion, the first ever official visit of a Governor General of Canada to Mongolia is, of course, a special moment that will never be forgotten.  We did not, however, get there all on our own...and yes, fair warning, this is where the blog goes a wee bit maudlin - I can't help it, I'm so touched by this event that I have to take a moment ...
Sue Crews, pictured here in the final official group photo (beside me in the back row...oh, and a girl!!) has been invaluable in her help in getting the Sanctuary up and running.  She has been my right hand and stand in when I've been away for two years now - so.. Thank you  Sue for all of your help - we truly could not have done it without you! Can I also take a moment to thank Erin Day and Lorie Leitz - our board members back in North America who do a ton of work with virtually no recognition!  This medal belongs to you guys too!!

This medal also belongs to Baskaa, our local NGO partner and the other half of that "linkages" business, Zolaa, our special projects manager who makes it possible for us to actually impact our local community and , of course, our son and youngest board member of the Veloo Foundation whose sound judgement and caring heart really has an impact on the way that we are moving forward and the kinds of relationships we are building here in Mongolia.

Thanks to everyone: friends, family, co-workers,  Mongolian & ex-pat for helping us get to this place ...I know we could not have done it alone!  And thanks for your continued support - so we can keep on building those strong relationships that will ( hopefully!) help the Children of the Peak grow and learn and take their rightful place in society.


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Spreading the Love....

 Something very cool is happening, something I never expected but an so thrilled to report on....there is an echo boom of philanthropy in the countryside here in Mongolia.  My good friend and Mongolian teacher Saraa (Standing beside me in the photo above....and Mongolian) and her husband Baagii ( you'll meet him in a minute..) have started thinking about the world in a whole new way.  Saraa and Baagii run a small (wonderful!!) ger camp and horse trekking business ...www.horsetrekmongolia.com where I go riding every week.  The International Equestrian Club ( fondly known as the riding club) has helped Saraa and Baagii and their neighbours tremendously and has allowed them all not only to remain in the countryside, but to thrive.  This amelioration of their life has lead them to stop and consider their good fortune - and look at their other, far flung neighbours who have not been lucky enough to benefit from the riding club or the like....and, has made them want to spread the love and help their neighbours!  It's a beautiful thing to witness!  Saraa and Baagii  have been involved on many levels with the foundation already - including helping us set up the Children of the Peak Sanctuary and running our annual fund raiser, the Gobi Gallop.   Recently, after looking around and trying to decide the best, most sustainable way to help their rural neighbours,  Saraa & Baagii came to me with a suggestion.  "There are a lot of people out in the countryside just barely hanging on" they said... "why don't we help them before they have to give it all up and move into the city..and onto the dump!  Even more, maybe we can gather them together, buy them a few animals and set them up in a business they all know well ....a farm!"  Great idea ! I love it!  And I love the the idea of helping your fellow man is spreading!!  First things first though - let's just get them some warm clothes for Tsagaan Sar!
 So, we bought a bundle of  children's used warm jackets, had them washed by a local expat lady here,(thank you Joy!!)  used some of the wonderful sweaters donated from Australia ( see previous blog... you won't believe how wonderful they are if you haven't seen them!) and  I set about, with the  help of Elaine and Sue - two tremendous volunteers really making a difference here in Mongolia -  bundling up 80 or so bundles to give out in Erdene Zoum, a small town about 60 kms outside of Ulaanbaatar....all set up by Saraa!
 Such Fun !!  And it was so lovely to see how happy Saraa was to be instigating this wonderful outreach.

 80+ kids, 23 families...like this one - 4 children, almost no animals left and the husband  unable to find other work, they live on 80,000 MNT / month - family allowance.  About $60.00 / month - and meat is about $6.00 / kilo.  Very tough.
 So sweet to see the happy smiles on the kids' faces!

 These people are not used to people helping them and so it took them a bit to realize that we just wanted to give their children something warm and snug to help them through the winter.
 Thanks Elaine...

 And thanks to you too Sue!!  And to your wonderful husbands who gave up their Saturday to come out and help us help these kids!
 ....with just some of the recipients!
 ...and why is it that the women always end up holding the babies..hmmmn...
 .. I guess you could say look who's talking!
 Saraa - having a blast!

 It was nearly over and only had one problem... and we had not found a suitable recipient for this absolutely adorable little western fur lined jacket!  Never fear...Baagii to the rescue!  He saw that we were looking to find a LITTLE one for it, scoped out the crowd and took control!
 Will it fit under that dell?
 Yes it will!!  How cute is that! ??  And how lovely to have another WARM layer under the dell! And how lovely to see Baagii get into the spirit of giving!

 Thanks everyone!  Another really wonderful day.  I can't tell you how great it feels to be able to meet and help these people!  After we had given something to everyone there, the local director wanted us to take our remaining 8 or so packages of clothes out to one of  the poorest family in town - 3 women living with 10 children..in one ger.
This is the ger....inside wasn't any better.  And yes, that door is a blanket.  Suffice it to say that this week we are organizing another donation of clothes to this family - we found out that most of these  ten kids aren't going to school because they don't have clothes - and food ( staples & meat), Boov, candy and tea for Tsagaan Sar.  And next week Baagii and the guides he uses for his horse treks are going to help us out again.  The Veloo Foundation is  donating a fully decked out ger to help these ladies and, most importantly, the children out, and Baagii and his team are going to put it up for them.  How good is that?!!  So, once again, thank you all for your donations that make it possible for us to help like this...you really can't imagine the changes you are helping to make in so many lives here!!