A Light in the Dark
“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.” – Anne Frank.
Finding hope can seem impossible in the direst of situations and in the darkest of places. For those born to a life of need and want, hidden away in corners of our planet that so few people ever see, words like “help” and “opportunity” have little meaning. The children of Notre Dame Orphanage in Ulaanbataar, Mongolia are among the unfortunate people who struggle with these circumstances every single day.
Life in Ulaanbataar Mongolia is hard enough for everyday citizens, let alone orphans. Sitting at a high altitude in North-Central Mongolia, this capital city is a living relic of life under Soviet rule. The majority of homes in Ulaanbataar are block-style apartment buildings that survived the cold war age. Many basic utilities for these buildings such as heat and hot water are controlled and rationed by the government. To make matters worse, overwhelming poverty and brutally cold winters define the region. Food and supplies are available for those who can afford them, but even those people with regular employment earn so little, it barely makes any difference. As one might expect, this leaves almost nothing for orphaned children, perceived by most Mongolian citizens as the lowest rung of society and a drain on the government.
Even in the wake of such terrible odds, there are people out in the world who want to make a difference. One of those people is Amelia Gray, a recent graduate of the ICL Global Leaders Academy. Some might call it dumb luck and others fate, but Amelia found herself a recent import to Mongolia as a result of her father’s job.
Amelia has moved a number of times throughout her life and has witnessed many unique cultures. Still, while she was able to see so many new places, Amelia didn’t always feel like she had the full experience. She never felt like she was able to make her mark on any particular area.
Upon moving to Ulaanbataar, Amelia began looking for a way to get immersed within the community as a result of her participation in the ICL Global Leaders Academy. She teamed up with a handful of her new classmates to visit a local orphanage and see if there was anything she could do to help out. What Amelia discovered at the facilities left her in complete shock.
“It was unbelievable to me at first because I couldn’t understand how people were surviving. The children are taken care of by nuns, but it’s if the nuns have it just as bad as they do. When I arrived, the heating was broken because the pipes had burst. It was -40 degrees Celsius and both the children and nuns were wearing shabby clothing with holes, woolen socks, and sandals! No coats. To make matters worse, the government had told the orphanage that they would be shut down unless renovations were made. Some of the renovations were ridiculous too – like painting the walls in a specific color. That is the extent to which the state wanted any involvement in these children’s lives. Because of their backgrounds, these kids will never get adopted. This decree would have left twenty-three children under 14 years of age completely homeless. I just needed to do something to at least lighten up these kids’ lives and help them.” Amelia further added that “Mongolia was a communist state only twenty years ago. Culturally, you must make do with what you have here and if you’re forced to ask for help, even if you’re without any means like an orphan, it’s totally looked down upon.”
Seeing how this orphanage, as meager as it might seem to an outsider, was the only semblance of family any of these children might ever know, Amelia recruited her friends to take a stand. This is where her experience as a ICL Global Leader was paramount in positively affecting the lives of others.
“The Academy taught me that it all doesn’t just come together immediately,” Amelia said regarding her desire to jump in and fix an obvious problem. “You have to plan and you have to carefully craft a team of people who want to move in the same direction as you do. This is where a lot of the lessons we learned at the Academy really paid off. It’s the difference between pointing others in the right direction and just simply barking orders and telling people what to do. Specifically, the use of Academy materials like the project charter helped us stay organized as we prepared to support the orphanage.”
Amelia and her friends successfully started a baking business for the orphanage. They organized the nuns to bake croissants and cookies, which Amelia and her friends sold around the entire community. Amelia’s team also began a drive at her school to raise additional funds. While this was going on, another team was dispatched to the school to paint the orphanage so it was in compliance with the government’s regulations.
Over Christmas, since many of Amelia’s classmates developed such a strong attachment to the children at the orphanage, they organized a way to buy presents for the students as well as a Christmas tree. One of the students even dressed up as Santa Claus, which Amelia claims, “they went crazy for.” After all, this was more than likely the first and only holiday season these children had ever experienced.
Not only is the orphanage now remaining open, but it is enjoying a level of support that it had never previously experienced. Additionally, Amelia’s group was able to raise enough money so that every child received proper school uniforms! There was also enough funding left so that the orphanage could provide music lessons for any child who is interested.
The best part of the experience was that Amelia feels she has finally left a mark on the map. By lighting up the lives of others with a commitment to service, Amelia is now a part of a community. She has forged unforgettable relationships with people whose only crime was that they were overlooked by the world around them. These are relationships that Amelia expects to keep far into the future. As she says, “My experience with the Institute for Civic Leadership really got me to be more involved in Mongolia, generally speaking. While cultures are different, there is a lot to learn about the world and how it works by accepting diversity and understanding the challenges that people face in unfamiliar circumstances. I’ll be able to take this lesson with me wherever I go.”