Mongolia is the least populous country on the planet (it is said that the horses outnumber the people 12 to 1), and in the vast steppes that comprise most of the country one feels the immensity of green space, as if one were sailing on a rolling sea of grass. But the sprawling, dusty city of Ulaanbaatar is quite another matter: there is virtually no green space to be found, and the few postage-stamp-sized playgrounds that dot the city–especially in the ger districts–are marred by mud puddles and rusting, decrepit equipment.
So when we offered the first soccer camp two years ago as a way to complement the medical team’s activities at the hospital, we did not realize that we were providing kids from both The Children’s Place orphanage and the nearby ger district a rare opportunity to play in open, green space. But the camp was so successful that, what began as the inspiration of a then-16-year-old Justin Sandler (Eric’s youngest) in 2012 has turned into an annual event carried on by members of Margie’s and Rita’s church as a ministry to local street kids.
The 2013 camp was again held at the 97th School, but for 2014 Margie decided to move the camp to a gorgeous, full-sized field located at the National Defense University–and closer to the ger district, so that more kids could access the camp. With the children from the orphanage at their “Summer House,” a lovely country place donated to the orphans for two summer months a year, the 2014 camp would be three afternoon sessions geared toward older kids from the ger district.
Camp began on Monday afternoon underneath a bright blue Mongolian sky, with a dozen or more kids from the ger district participating, along with Margie’s and Rita’s kids. Under the watchful gaze of Boloroo, the young woman who runs the outreach ministry to kids in the ger district from Margie’s and Rita’s church, the kids skipped drills, chose sides, and jumped right into a game. Despite the heat–intensified by the artificial field-turf surface beneath us–the kids raced back and forth between the goals in a spirited match. Across the street was a supermarket where Margie and I loaded up on water and snacks to keep the kids refreshed, and at the end of our two-hour session the manager of the field told us the kids could play for another hour for free. Margie speculated that he made the gracious offer because he recognized the fact that these kids don’t have access to a facility like this and wanted to help out. By four o’clock the kids were worn out from the heat and the games, and Timuraa, who had picked up the kids in Margie’s old van, transported them back to their homes. Day 1 was a success.
Day 2 (Tuesday) saw another brilliant blue sky above us, and the campers had a slightly different flavor. All the kids from Monday were there, but several rough-looking teenagers joined us as well. These teens have what Rita calls a “homeless lifestyle”–that is, they will spend weeks away from family, staying in friends’ gers, returning to the family ger for a short time, and then disappearing again for days at a time. “They’re depressed, so they drink, and that just intensifies the cycle,” Rita observes. Older and bigger than most of the other kids, these teens are tougher to control, and they are just more physically aggressive–with the younger kids and with each other. When you grow up in a home where violence is ever-present, you carry that anger and aggression into the outside world.
Nevertheless, here these teens are, wearing some of the only clothes they have–which means long sleeves in heat and sun that even at UB’s latitude are burning this Floridian. But the teens, too, seem to enjoy the opportunity to run and play in an open space. Midway through the camp session, though, these four or five kids disappear, leaving us all to breathe a sigh of relief and yet to wonder why they departed so abruptly. But a few minutes later they return with a 1.5 liter bottle of what appears to be a soft drink from a local convenience store. Boloroo nonchalantly calls them over to her and asks if she can have a taste–she is cleverly making sure that no alcohol has been added to the cola. The drink passes muster, and the teens return to playing soccer. The field manager again grants us extra time to play, and after two-and-a-half hours of play in the heat we are all ready to call it a day.
The third and final day saw fewer kids (and none of the teens), the blazing sun probably having scared some of the kids off. But we had a great group of about 15 kids who scampered about the field and played a high-scoring game. Meanwhile, I had noticed that the day before some of the kids moved off to the side and used a soccer ball to play volleyball. That night I headed to the State Department Store (a relic of the old Soviet system, with shopping bags that read “All Needs Are Fulfilled”) to buy a real volleyball, and I spent most of the day using the new ball to play “pepper” with a rotating group of kids who would tire of the soccer, play volleyball for a few minutes, and then head back to soccer. Since I have actually coached volleyball, I was able to give the kids some pointers–I just don’t know how often they will have a chance to play in the future.
As the camp drew to a close, Boloroo summoned the kids over to one of the few shaded areas of the facility–the team bench–and reminded everyone that the camp was a gift of God and invited all of them to the church. Then we handed out the gifts I had brought–Hot Wheels cars, UF lanyards, seashells, and a few other trinkets, and the kids posed for one final photo with their gifts.
Though I finished the three days sunburned and exhausted, Soccer Camp 2014 was a resounding success. To be sure, I missed seeing the kids from the orphanage. But through the efforts of Boloroo and others from the church (not to mention Margie’s daughter Emily), kids who might not otherwise have had the opportunity got a chance to run and play on a real soccer field in a fun and safe environment. They repeatedly showed their gratitude, and I know that Jonathan’s spirit lives on through events in Mongolia such as this.