If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales. – Albert Einstein
In my travels for Holt’s child nutrition program (CNP), I occasionally have the happy coincidence of being able to visit other, non-CNP-related Holt programs. Recently, when conducting a formal needs assessment for CNP with one of our partners in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, I was lucky enough to participate in the grand opening of Holt’s newest and truly inspirational family strengthening program in the same city.
Holt’s new after-school program in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia is located in the social welfare office of the poorest district in the city, Songino Khairkhan district. This district is often informally called the “Ger district,” as many families live in traditional ger dwellings instead of permanent housing throughout the area. Despite the long, brutally cold winters here, few families in the Ger district can afford a brick and mortar home.
A ger is a one-room yurt with a coal burning stove for heat and cooking. There is no bathroom, running water or electricity. Every morning, children have to walk to the public tap house with ten-gallon jugs to gather water for the day — rain, snow or shine. This jug must cover all of their needs — cooking, tooth-brushing, drinking, everything. They use public restrooms that are unsanitary and often dangerous. If they are lucky enough to afford it, families go to the public bathhouse once a month to take a bath, but most go without this luxury.
Schools, especially in the poor districts, are overwhelmed by children. Without enough room to accommodate all the children, schools are forced to shuffle them through their system in four three-hour shifts. After school, children have nowhere to go, nowhere to study, nowhere to learn. Ulaanbaatar has a public library, but it is an hour-long bus ride away for children of the Ger district. And since they can’t afford the bus fare, it may as well be on another planet. Without any structure outside of their three hours at school every day, children often get involved in street activities. Often, this leads to crime, violence and separation from their families.
Through our family preservation program in Mongolia, Holt child sponsors currently support 185 children in the Ger district and indirectly support 365 of their siblings. But we knew that something more had to be done for these children because school alone was not meeting their educational needs. Although all so eager to learn, they have not had a real opportunity to do so. So, in March, 2015, Holt approached the local social welfare officials in the Ger district and asked how we could help. With that, the after-school program was born.
Earlier this month, I was fortunate to attend the grand opening of the program. It was a jubilant celebration.
The Songino Khairkhan district social welfare office donated two rooms in their building to the program. We knocked down the wall between them and created one, large library, which was then filled with books from Holt, the Asia Foundation and local Mongolians who wanted to help their neighbors. The library is staffed by an educator who will supervise children, tutor them, help with homework and encourage them in their academic pursuits. This teacher will also serve as an advocate for the children, keeping an eye on their wellbeing and notifying the proper authorities if a child’s home life is in crisis. By regularly observing the children, our hope is that this educator can give Holt or the social welfare office time to intervene and help the family before they reach the point of needing to relinquish their children.
The social welfare office has also arranged for local artists, musicians, authors and other figures in the community to put on special workshops for the children — broadening their horizons and exposing them to new possibilities, skills and interests.
The children will come to the library for four hours either after or before school depending on their schedule. The center will be open on the weekend for them as well. While there, they will receive a hot, nutritious meal — for some, the only one they will receive for the day.
The social welfare office is also looking into the possibility of renovating a bathroom to give them safe access to the restroom facilities and perhaps, if building codes will allow it, even a shower! This will have a huge impact on their health and wellbeing. Holt is also in the process of arranging for the children to receive quarterly health exams by a doctor at the library facility.
Wow. This is so much more than a library. Or even a traditional after-school program.
Naturally, when I heard of this robust program — and that I would get to see such a simple but transformative program begin — I felt compelled to help in some way. I heard that they needed English-language books for the children, as they are hard to find and very expensive in Mongolia. Together, with our Creative Services department, I put together a Holt book drive to fill the new library. The results were inspiring. In two and a half short weeks, our staff, family, friends and a few loyal Holt supporters collected nearly 300 books weighing in at over 130 pounds! Together with Paul Kim, the director of Holt’s Mongolia program, we separated the books and packaged them up into our checked luggage to donate to this worthy cause.
The day the program opened, children and families were in attendance. There were speeches, performances, treats and laughter. Many children could not wait for the formalities to end to start pulling books off the shelf. Mothers and daughters read story books together, older siblings read to their younger brothers and sisters — the room was filled with hope and happiness.
I could not have been prouder to work for Holt International on that day. I was filled with awe and gratitude seeing the books we collected and carried with us now on the shelves, looking upon the smiling faces of the children that would one day read them. They are standing by waiting to be those children’s friends, to provide them relief and comfort, and to wash away the dust and grime of their daily lives from their young hearts and souls. This was a room filled with portable magic — accessible to the children in this area for the first time.
While watching the children read to themselves, each other and in some cases their parents, I remembered when I was a child — anxiously waiting for the bell to ring so I could run home and discover if Professor Snape was really out to get Harry Potter or if the Leaf-men would be triumphant against the cruel queen spider and her armies. My world and possibilities knew no bounds when I was wrapped up in a good story. Books taught me to imagine, dream and believe in a bigger, brighter future. Holt’s after-school program in Mongolia will do that and so much for the children we serve.
Right now, the program is small. Of the 185 children we support, the program only has capacity to serve 60 of them. I wish we could reach more children, more quickly. However, we recently received exciting news! Several other Mongolian officials have contacted Holt requesting to partner with us in replicating our after-school program in other areas of the city. The Mongolian government sees the amazing potential of our program and wants it to reach every child that may need it.
Considering where these children come from, the services of a safe space, a hot meal, the love and attention of a caring teacher and unlimited access to good books are more valuable than words can express. It is my hope that we are called upon to gather hundreds more books to fill the shelves of many more programs just like this one for every child we serve. As my hero, Dr. Seuss, famously said, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” Holt’s after-school program gives children a real chance to expand and improve their own worlds. I expect what happens next will be a real page-turner.
Aloura DiGiallonardo | Nutrition Initiatives Coordinator