As the steppe begins to bloom with spring flowers and tender grass, the thaw gives way to hopes for a prosperous and fruitful spring and summer. Across Ulaanbaatar, children return outdoors to play, grateful for the warmer weather. On the fringes of the city – in the outermost ger districts and in the city’s dumps – you’ll find children at play, but you’ll also find children at work. Alongside their parents and grandparents, you’ll find children combing through the city’s waste – picking through mountains of garbage to find things that might be of use in their own humble home, and looking for recyclables that could yield a small return to buy food, coal, or medicine.

In the Songino Khairkhan District, the Veloo Foundation’s Children of the Peak Sanctuary Project offers families from “the Peak” (the city’s Ulaanchuulut Garbage Dump) respite from this daily struggle for survival – a struggle an estimated 20,000 Mongolians know all too well. The Veloo Foundation, a Canadian-registered non-profit organization, has dedicated itself to creating community-based, sustainable solutions for eliminating poverty and creating opportunities for these families and children to thrive.

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT MODELS

The Children of the Peak Sanctuary Project takes a four-pronged approach to achieving its ambitious goals. They have developed programs focused on the following tools of empowerment: education, infrastructure, employment, and relief.

The Foundation’s education initiative is based on three programs designed to fight the tide of generational poverty. One of the key struggles for ger district families raising small children is access to childcare and early education programs. When these resources are unavailable, parents and caregivers are left with few options other than leaving children unattended at home, or in the care of an older child who sacrifices their own time in school to care for their younger siblings, or with an elderly relative who is poorly equipped to care for a young child.  Another option is to take their children with them to work in the garbage dump, where they sit among the waste while their parents comb through it. Eventually, they grow old enough to pick through the garbage alongside their parents.

Neither of these options give these children the safety and security they need to thrive. Being left at home leaves them vulnerable to the risk of accidents. Every year, local news outlets report stories of children and elderly who are lost to fires in ger district homes. Sometimes, a fire is started in a ger that has been locked from the outside – a precaution a parent might take to keep young children safe from the danger of wandering outside of the home alone. Even when a door is left unlocked, when a ger fire hits, it burns with quick devastation, and very young children and incapacitated elderly are often unable  to escape.  A number of children currently enrolled at the Peak Sanctuary Kindergarten have, regrettably, suffered burns in exactly these sorts of situations prior to coming to join the fun, friendly, and stimulating environment offered at the kindergarten.

The Peak Sanctuary Kindergarten opened in September 2013 to fill this critical gap in the community, and today, nearly 135 children attend. The kindergarten employs a staff of 21 (including eight Peak residents) and offers all of the same services and care a child would receive in a public kindergarten. The children are fed, kept warm and secure, receive health and dental screenings, and learn from a curriculum that prepares them for moving up the educational ladder.

Breakfast at the Peak kindergarten
Breakfast at the Peak kindergarten

The staff of the Peak Sanctuary Kindergarten work with the parents of enrolled children by offering parenting support and guidance. Children who are unregistered as residents of Ulaanbaatar find it difficult to enroll in the city’s public schools. Peak Sanctuary Kindergarten staff work with parents to get their children registered and to ensure that the kindergarten’s graduates are able to move on to grade school and beyond.

Plans are now in the works for the construction of a fully-equipped kindergarten for up to 150 children. The new school will be operated through a public-private partnership agreement, with the kindergarten’s operating costs largely being covered by the Government of Mongolia as a public education facility.

The Foundation also operates the Soaring Crane Summer Camp for children and the Young Scholars Programme. Soaring Crane Summer Camp gives children from the Peak  the chance to develop life skills, learn about Mongolian heritage, and to plant the seeds for a future beyond the Peak. The Young Scholars Programme gives children the chance to apply for full scholarships to select private schools in Ulaanbaatar. Five children from the program are currently enrolled in schools that offer enrichment beyond what most public schools can provide, and they have a rare chance to keep working toward higher education.

The Foundation’s multi-faceted approach to community support is a well-designed plan to give ger area residents the long-term support that sporadic charity can’t offer, and ultimately reach the goal of having no one in Ulaanbaatar  forced to scavenge in the garbage to survive. These programs require greater investment and effort, but they reap more substantial rewards, as residents are able to find traditional work in the city and off the dump.

Employment and vocational training are critical tools to bringing people out of poverty, and become more effective when coupled with childcare and educational programs. The Children of the Peak Sanctuary Project’s employment and vocational training programs are centered on skills that are valued in core industries based in Ulaanbaatar. Foreign language training empowers youth and adults to enter into the tourism and hospitality industry with a highly sought after skill set. Programs are also being developed to help community members find employment as construction workers, barbers, and seamstresses.

The Greening Mongolia Bag Project will be up and running soon, and people will be able to purchase the project’s reusable cloth shopping bags at all Orgil Stores. The bags have been  designed and made at the Peak by women and men who previously had to scavenge to survive.  Peak community members are also making furniture that is for sale at the UpCycle Sofa Centre (part of the Sewing Centre Building).  Both traditional sofas and sofas made from up-cycled plastic bottles are available. The center was funded by a grant from the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives in Mongolia.

Peak relief efforts are focused on families most in need, or those who can benefit most immediately from the items and services donated. The Peak Foster Care Program offers shelter and care for the community’s most vulnerable children. Other efforts focus on the distribution of donated food, gers, and clothing. A volunteer program gives donors and supporters the chance to engage with the recipients of their gifts and time in a way that builds a stronger sense of community and compassion.

MAKING PROGRAMS POSSIBLE

These programs play a critical role in the lives of hundreds of Songino Khairkhan District residents, and the Veloo Foundation works arduously to maintain and expand them. Their work is funded by generous donations from foreign and domestic businesses and individuals, as well as spectacular annual fundraising efforts.

The Gobi Gallop is the Veloo Foundation’s signature fundraising event – an exciting endurance ride on horseback, paired with a celebratory gala. Since 2013, the Gobi Gallop has helped to raise over 250,000 USD to fund the programs of the Children of the Peak Sanctuary Project.

This year’s Gobi Gallop is set to take place in June, and it will be a celebration of the fifth anniversary of the ride. The theme of this year’s ride is “In Celebration of the Mongolian Horse”, honoring six Mongolian horses that have been ridden in every Gobi Gallop since its inception.

The ride is not a race, but it’s no bareback walk through a paddock. Each year, the Gobi Gallop invites 10 adventurous endurance riders from around the globe to take on an epic adventure challenge and to traverse an astounding 700 kilometers in 10 days on sturdy Mongolian horses.

Seeing the steppe on horseback
Seeing the steppe on horseback

Each rider is assigned two horses for the ride, swapping them out each day after covering 70 to 100 kilometers. Riders must complete at least 20 kilometers of the ride in a traditional Mongolian saddle. For the journey, riders get to experience life on the steppe with nomadic families, sleep under the stars, and travel across the Mongolian countryside with a skilled and knowledgeable support team of Mongolian horsemen.

The ride is coordinated by Horse Trek Mongolia. In addition to the Gobi Gallop and custom trekking packages, Horse Trek Mongolia operates Khot Ail (also known as Saraa’s Ger Camp), a popular camp for ger stays outside of Ulaanbaatar. Throughout the year, 20 percent of the proceeds from a number of  Horse Trek Mongolia’s treks benefit the Children of the Peak Sanctuary Project.

Gobi Gallop riders have come from Canada, Australia, Dubai, New Zealand, England, Switzerland, Germany, the U.S., and Mongolia. Each rider  pays their entry fee – 50 percent of which goes directly to helping  the Children of the Peak Sanctuary Project. In addition, each rider commits to raising additional funds to support the ride. All funds raised from the ride and from the Gobi Gallop Gala go directly to funding the Children of the Peak Sanctuary Project.

Due to last minute withdrawals due to unavoidable circumstances,  two spots have come available for the 2017 Gobi Gallop. If you’re up for the adventure of a lifetime for an incredibly good cause, complete the application on the Horse Trek Mongolia website. Change the lives of children and families with your very own life-changing experience, while you immerse yourself in Mongolia’s hospitality, nomadic spirit, and endless possibility.

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