Last Day of Soccer Camp: Steve’s Thoughts and Emotions

Today is the last day of soccer camp, and we are all pretty emotional about it. Indeed, the entire week has brought us a mixture of emotions: the initial shock at the chaotic nature of Ulaanbaatar, the gradual adjustment to the chaos, the bonding with the children, and now the prospect of goodbye. We are physically worn out from the surprisingly hot sun and the play, and emotionally fatigued by the overwhelming sense of neediness we have encountered.

Natalie and John have swapped places today; since she arrived late Monday night, she hasn’t yet been to the hospital, and John, a soccer fan (unfortunately a Netherlands follower ūüėČ ), has done what he can do with the pharmacists at the hospital and wants to spend some time with the kids.

We are also joined by Dan, a young Englishman who, along with his wife Cat, is in the midst of a two-month mission commitment in Mongolia. Dan has just completed medical school and is pondering sub-specialization in pediatric hematology/oncology when he returns home later this summer.


Dan and Kat

While Cat contributes her expertise as a Physical Therapist to The Children’s Place, Dan has spent the week at the hospital learning as much from Eric as he can, but today is ready to indulge in one of his passions, soccer. ¬†Though he is a hemophiliac himself, Dan refuses to let that hold him back, and for many years he has played goalie on a number of different teams, including one that recently tried out for the Mongolian first division.

When we arrive at the 97th School the children have actually gotten there before us. With Paul and Dan assisting, Justin quickly gets things organized and the children run through their drills.


Running drill with a parachute

Meanwhile John and I play with those who are less interested in soccer. ¬†Abigail, the youngest of Margie’s three children, has finally warmed up to me and wants to be picked up. I oblige, and she asks me to run as fast as I can while holding her. I wear myself out racing her up and down the sidelines.



Steve, Abigail, Oyundari


Impatiently waiting to be spun around!

Then, before I know it, I am surrounded by children–among them Abigail, Oyundari, Enkhtuul, Halliuna, and a girl from the ger district whose name I don’t know–all wanting to be spun around by the arms. After 15 minutes of spinning I have to beg for a break, but now the girls want to play “Wolves and Sheep”–essentially a game of tag, but with a name descending from the Mongols’ days as steppe herders and hunters. ¬†Before the morning is over, I am happily exhausted!

As the soccer camp comes to a close, Margie and the other Children’s Place workers who have accompanied her this morning gather all the orphans together to say farewell. The children burst into a song that seems completely spontaneous and that brings tears to my eyes.


Kids singing

Margie later explains that they have chosen a song associated with naadam, the upcoming national festival of Mongolia, but that each time she has thought they were ending they added yet another verse. That, she says, shows how much they have enjoyed the week. ¬†As we walk back to the van, the little girl from the district who had so often asked to be spun holds my right hand. ¬†She looks up at me and says, “Esteve, I love you.” ¬†“I love you too,” I reply. Usukhbayar walks up on my left. ¬†“Esteve, Jesus loves you,” he says in English. “Jesus loves you, too, Usukhbayar.” ¬†The children are loaded into one van, the rest of us into another to head to The Children’s Place.

Shortly after we get to the orphanage, Eric, Sally, and Natalie arrive with Rita from the hospital. This is John’s first visit to The Children’s Place, and Eric and Sally’s first substantial time there. Lunch is being prepared for the kids, and we play with them while they wait.¬† Oyundari loves to be tickled, and I have great fun picking her up and tickling her.


The kids eating lunch


Enjoying food and the company

As we try to settle the children down, we give them gifts we have brought from the faraway ocean: scallop shells and shark teeth.


Admiring the seashells

Halliuna, at 12 the oldest of the children and a quick study in English, looks at Natalie and says, “This my family. My home.” ¬†Her mother is an alcoholic and Halliuna hopes to go home soon, but it is far from clear what her home life would be like if she were to return.

Soon it is time for us to go and to say our final goodbyes. I give each kid a hug, but Oyundari, who is washing dishes, refuses–she doesn’t want to say goodbye. As Margie explains, these kids have lots of goodbyes in their lives. ¬†The departure wrenches me emotionally: these kids are so lovable and yet their futures so uncertain, and my time with them has filled me with a grace for which I am grateful and which I don’t want to lose.

That night we take Rita, Margie, and their children out for a farewell dinner at an excellent Indian restaurant tucked down one of the scores of side streets and blind alleys that keep many of Ulaanbaatar’s gems hidden from the casual tourist.


Team dinner

Rita opens the meal with a prayer that honors Jonathan’s presence, and we then exchange gifts. ¬†Tomorrow morning Rita will take Sally to the airport for her flight home, the rest of our team will leave for the countryside, and our new friends will head to Inner Mongolia for a reconnaissance visit. ¬†But for me tonight represents one last moment with the children, and from the time we met in the parking lot Abigail has latched onto me. ¬†For most of the meal Abigail, David, and I play rock-paper-scissors or other games, and I have a blast. ¬†We say farewell in the parking lot, and our team gets ready for four days of adventure in the countryside.

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