While traveling on the Holt Mongolia Vision Trip, adoptee Robyn MacKay visited an orphanage that she and other donors support in Mongolia.
It was a perfect sunny day when I stepped off the bus in Darkhan City, Mongolia, about four hours north of the capital of Ulaanbaatar, close to the border of Russia. I was on Holt’s second Mongolia Vision Trip and we arrived at the Sun Child Orphanage, a program that we had not visited on the previous trip. As soon as we entered the gate onto the grounds of Sun Child, I knew something special was happening. The children greeted us inside the gate and approached us one by one, with hugs, smiles and English phrases such as, “Nice to meet you.”
It was, as one team member said, “the nicest greeting that I have ever received.” I think that we hugged them back harder than they hugged us as we were overcome with warmth from them. I looked around at my friends on the vision trip team and saw enormous smiles on their faces. I will never forget that moment inside the gate at Sun Child, where the name of the orphanage came to life — the children were literally shining sunshine upon us.
Suddenly, I realized that one of the little girls was wearing a blue and white checkered shirt, which was what I was also wearing. She looked to be around 10 years old. We had a laugh together at our matching shirts. I also noticed that she was wearing a bracelet on her wrist, and I pointed at it and told her that it was pretty. She smiled at me, took the bracelet off, reached for my arm and put the bracelet on me.
This is just one example of how warm, kind and compassionate the children at Sun Child are.
We were led inside a ger, a Mongolian-style home and gathering place, for lunch. At Sun Child, the forty resident children are taught various arts and vocational skills on site. One of the skills is cooking/baking and our lunch was prepared by the children. While we ate, we were introduced to the director of the Sun Child Orphanage, Ms. Erdenechuluun Sanjaa. I was later informed by May Gombo, a social worker with Holt Mongolia, that Erdenechuluun means “precious stone.”
Ms. Sanjaa founded the Sun Child Orphanage in 2000, using her experience as a master teacher, in collaboration with an NGO. Her mission was to provide an orphanage for “street kids” in Darkhan City and she began with 15 children. Sun Child is now a facility for 40 children and is an independent entity.
One of the reasons that Sun Child is able to provide a safe and loving home for these children is because Holt International sponsors and donors provide the funding for the monthly food. It was mind-blowing for me to learn how little it costs to feed 40 children at Sun Child each month. The wheels in my head began to spin as I thought about what other opportunities may exist to support these children through Holt International, with our donor support.
In the time since Ms. Sanjaa opened the orphanage in 2000, 54 children have graduated (they attend public school) and amazingly, 47 of them have gone on to universities in Mongolia and around the world, including the U.S. The other seven went on to continue their vocational training. Four of the current teachers of arts and vocational training are former children of the orphanage. As Ms. Sanjaa spoke to us, we began to understand why her children are so successful.
Among the information that she shared with us is that she considers the children “her” children. They are raised and loved as a family.
It all began to make sense to me, as I thought about how confident and poised the children at the gate were: It is because they are loved as a family. Another one of her philosophies that she shared is that she encourages the children to follow their passions, and the teachers at Sun Child foster their skills in areas such as painting, music, dance, sewing and culinary arts. In addition to studying the arts and skills, the children are taught to be entrepreneurial with their talents.
Some of the children are part of an award-winning performance arts group that travels to international competitions throughout Japan each year and they invest their prize winnings back into the Sun Child programs. There is also a bakery, an art gallery and a sewing shop on site, all of which allow the children to sell their products and invest the proceeds into the betterment of the orphanage.
As an example, the ger that we had lunch in was erected by the students and is available for tourists to rent . Ms. Sanjaa told us that the proceeds of a recent rental allowed the boys’ quarters to be upgraded with a better heating system, so the boys were able to directly benefit from their effort building the ger as a revenue-generating asset.
She and her staff are teaching the children that through hard work, they can earn things that they desire.
Though she spoke to us in Mongolian and relied on a translator to communicate her thoughts, the pride in Ms. Sanjaa’s face when she spoke was palpable – and so incredibly inspirational. Her stories of the children’s success were numerous, but she also spoke about the challenges. She shared with us that because the children are from the streets, there can be behavior problems and that it takes time, patience, teaching and love to help the children move past these issues.
She shared that she and the orphanage often face stigma from members of the community, who blame behavior problems on the fact that many of the children lived on the streets before they came to live in the orphanage. It was obvious what an advocate she is for these children — in her unwavering belief in them, and in her refusal to let the community see them as problem children.
She brought tears to my eyes when she spoke about the children who have gone on to be married and have their own children. She told us that sometimes, the families they are marrying into do not want their own child to marry an “orphan.” But she makes it clear to their new in-laws that these children are not orphans; they have a family — and that family is exactly what we saw that day at Sun Child.
Ms. Sanjaa spoke of when a baby is born to one of her “children,” she buys the traditional gifts that are bestowed upon the new child — as any family would do. She is their mother, and their grandmother.
To me, Ms. Sanjaa is the most extraordinary example of how one person can make an incredible difference in the lives of so many in this big, complicated world. Her commitment to the children, her steadfast belief in them, her hope for their future and her love have literally changed the world for this group of kids. Once street kids, her children are loving, warm, talented, successful and confident.
Our vision trip team dubbed her “The Mother Teresa of Mongolia.” I am going to simply call her my hero.
We stayed hours longer than we had planned that day. Outside, in the mild Mongolian autumn, we played with the children under the blue sky and none of us wanted to leave. The feelings of peace and happiness there were truly incredulous. When it finally came time and we had to go, the children gave us gifts of bread and pastries that they had baked and they walked us to the gate with more rounds of hugs, just as they had greeted us.
When we got to the gate, they kept going and walked with us out to the street where our bus waited. One little girl linked her arm in mine and walked me all the way to the bus. The children stood alongside the bus and kept waving as we drove away —our smiles as big as theirs. I wholeheartedly believe that we were all changed when we left Darkhan City.
I didn’t keep the little girl’s bracelet. I left it with her, alongside a large piece of my heart.
Robyn MacKay | Boston, MA