What Works: A Lesson from Mongolia: Do What You Can

August 15, 2002

It’s 2 p.m. in Mongolia, somewhere between Ulan Bator and Mandt. I’m bouncing along in an SUV with five other people, heading for the Mandt Mental Hospital.

    Most of the roads in this vast country are made of dirt, rock, and deep ruts. Our driver keeps his foot on the gas and tries to skim over the biggest bumps. I’m in the front seat feeling entirely out of control, gripping the armrests while trying to ignore my roiling stomach.

    "Want another chip, Tom?" It’s Michelle Lewis from the back seat, handing me a bag of greasy potato chips. They call this humor. I politely decline, giving her my best fake smile.

    This day trip is Michelle’s idea. Born in Australia, raised in Canada, with parents now living in Southern California, the tall 33-year-old with long brown hair and an easy smile could have pursued any career. In fact, she worked as a high school drama teacher in California for 10 years.

    As a kid, Michelle liked to watch TV documentaries about far-away places. The images left an impression, and when she started looking for a more fulfilling work, she was drawn to two jobs she found on the Internet—one in Rwanda, the other with ADRA Mongolia.

    Based in the capital city of Ulan Bator, ADRA Mongolia is a development and relief agency with projects in education (Michelle’s area), food security, health, micro-enterprise, adventure-based learning, and agriculture. The organization has nearly quadrupled in size over the past three years and is now staffed by 36 Mongolians and a dozen other people from eight countries. I was there to conduct a three-day workshop, helping the staff discover ways to work together more effectively.

    Mongolia is among the least densely populated countries in the world, with 4 people per square mile. It’s also one of the coldest. Winter lasts about seven months and temperatures routinely plunge to -20°F. The past three winters have been the roughest in six decades, killing up to half of the herds of goats, sheep, and cows.

    There is much here that can’t be controlled, yet people like Michelle are doing all they can to bring assistance and hope. In June 2001, while attending one of the regular meetings of relief and development workers, she heard about the broken-down Mandt "mental hospital." Adults and children, many of them with no apparent mental disabilities, were sharing bunk space. Education didn’t exist. Food and clothing were desperately needed.

    Michelle rushed to see for herself. "It really looked like a concentration camp," she recalls. "People had no energy. They were sedated. They were starving. It was very dirty. It was very run down. It was actually a hot day so people were outside. Few of them had clothes on."

    Returning to Ulan Bator that evening, Michelle hit an emotional wall. "I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t talk. I just sat there." After a long night’s sleep, she woke up with deep resolve. "I said, ‘I have to do something. I cannot walk away from this place or these people.’ I was completely motivated."

    Back in the SUV, there’s a sudden shout. "We’re here!" It’s Michelle, pointing. Far off on the horizon, I can see a cluster of small, flat buildings. As we approach, they take shape: several one-story barracks, a crumbling plant for generating hot water, a few other wooden structures for cooking and supplies, about six people standing or sitting by themselves, six more in pairs, a few wild dogs ambling along the outskirts, two saddled horses tethered to a post. Nothing else—just flat open space.

    We climb out of the SUV, and Michelle leads us toward one of the low, rectangular buildings. The outside paint is chipped off in big hunks, and the surrounding gate is broken and rusty. "I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished here," she says.

    We follow her into a classroom where 15 youngsters and their teacher are waiting for us. The kids range from 4 to 18 years old, though some of them have been abandoned and no one knows their exact ages. Because of poor nutrition, they look younger. We greet them with our best Mongolian hello ("sain bainuu," pronounced san-ba-no), and they respond with big smiles.

    The room used to be just walls and chairs. Now it’s decorated with colorful nature pictures and alphabet posters. The children have their own desks, chairs, and school supplies. Shelves are loaded with paper, glue, markers, books, and chalkboards. "Look at the changes we’ve made," Michelle says, still amazed by the transformation.

    We visit with each child, doing our best to talk with the help of a translator. It’s hard to transcend the language and culture barriers. Then I get an idea. I grab a piece of paper, lean over a desk, and start folding. Several children huddle around, watching my hands at work. An airplane takes shape. I aim it and send it soaring across the room. Eyes widen as the paper plane skims over the children’s heads and the sounds of giggles.

Before long, entire squadrons of newly folded planes are flying through the little school in Mandt, Mongolia.

    I make another, and another. Other adults start folding. Several children are following our movements and making their own planes. Before long, entire squadrons of newly folded planes are flying through the little school in Mandt, Mongolia.

    On the long ride back to Ulan Bator, a favorite quote keeps coming to mind: "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are." We drive through a village made up of dilapidated wooden buildings and round felt huts known as "gers." I can see a woman inside a shack vigorously washing her windows with a rag. Further on, we see two basketball hoops made from scrap tin.

    That evening I ask Michelle how she makes good things happen in such a troubled place. "I’m no different than anyone else," she says. "I’m not more gifted. The only thing I think I’ve got is a great imagination. I see these places and I ask, ‘Why can’t we do something?’ There’s no reason we can’t."

    Two days later my plane takes off for home. As I stare out the window, my mind lingers on precious souvenirs—a brightened classroom, happy faces, a woman’s gifts, an enduring lesson: Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

Workforce, August 2002, pp. 26-27 -- Subscribe Now!

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