Last summer, children with disabilities and their families spent a week at a free, Holt-supported summer camp outside of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Children got a chance to play in the sun and enjoy the fresh air of the countryside. At the same time, physical therapists trained their parents on special therapies to try with them at home.
Every summer, families in Mongolia stream out of cities like Ulaanbaatar to spend a few weeks in the countryside. It’s a cultural tradition, like a July 4th barbecue or a summer trip to the beach. Cars carrying excited countrygoers roll out to Mongolia’s open steppes, which bloom bright and beautiful with grass and flowers in the summer.
Cities like Ulaanbaatar are crowded and struggle with issues like air pollution and water purity. So, these summer breaks are a brief and much-anticipated reprieve. Children in particular benefit from a week or two of fresh air and sunshine, during Mongolia’s brief warm months.
But traditions like these are an unreachable luxury for people who live in poverty. This is especially true for the families of children with special needs. For them, between the funds required and the complexities of traveling with a child with disabilities, a trip to the countryside is completely out of the question.
But that’s where Holt Mongolia comes in!
Kindergarten in Mongolia
In Mongolia, we work with a public, government-run school that Holt sponsors and donors have supported for nearly a decade. It serves low-income families, many of whom have a child ages 4 to 6 with a disability. Most of the disabilities are physical, like cerebral palsy, muscular development challenges or genetic malformations.
Currently, Holt donors are helping to improve the facility and provide nutrition support as well as therapeutic care and services for children with disabilities. These families cannot afford private therapies like physical or occupational therapy. So, the services provided by this state kindergarten are vital to their children’s development.
In addition to school, this center also provides crucial childcare! Children attend state kindergarten Monday through Friday, during school hours. For families who need it, it is also available through extended working hours as well. This means that both parents can work full time if they need, to provide for their families.
“In many of these families, there is not a full-time caregiver available at home,” says Paul Kim, Holt’s U.S. director of Korea and Mongolia programs. “This kindergarten provides a level of support families would otherwise not have. It really enables families to not only get proper care for their children, but it also ensures family integrity and stability if both parents can be employed.”
In many areas around the world, rates of child abandonment are higher for children with disabilities. There are so many parents living in poverty who cannot afford care for a child who needs critical medical attention. As a result, they face the heartbreaking reality that staying home with a child who needs full-time attention will mean they cannot afford to provide for the rest of their family.
In Mongolia, the kindergarten we work with directly addresses this parenting dilemma. It makes it possible for both parents to work and earn an income while their child receives nurturing care and vital therapeutic attention at school. This makes all the difference.
“It tackles the issue of child abandonment,” says Paul, “taking it out of the equation.”
Summer Camp and Respite
However, despite the care and attention the children at the state kindergarten receive during the week, their families have no way to afford summer vacation. And while they receive physical and occupational therapy at school, their parents aren’t equipped with the knowledge or training to provide therapy at home that would stimulate their child’s continued development.
Seeing this, the state director had an idea! What if they held a family summer camp out in the country, and brought in physical and occupational therapists to train parents?
This is how a summer camp for children with disabilities began in the Mongolian countryside.
“Think of it as a week-long respite for families who otherwise would have none at all,” says Paul. “The goal was to make families stronger, healthier and more knowledgeable about their children, and quite honestly their own needs too.”
When Paul heard about the idea, he loved it! The state provided some of the funds for camp and Holt Mongolia stepped in with the rest. There was enough to fully fund three week-long camp sessions for smaller groups of families. Almost all 186 children attended camp, with about 60 families per session so they could receive more individual attention.
Camp was completely free except for the gas needed for families to get there! Families stayed in traditional Mongolian homes called gers at the campsite. The food was provided by staff with training in child nutrition and feeding methods. Support staff from the state kindergarten gave all-day supervision for all the children who attended.
So, this past summer, families of children in this state kindergarten were able to do something that had seemed out of reach: get in their car, drive out to the countryside, and spend a week by the lake watching their children play in the sunshine and fresh air.
“What was so apparent to us while we were out there was how much love these parents have for their kids,” observes Paul. “They want the best for their children and to be able to meet their needs as best they can. The other thing that was great was that it helped to build community among these families. They could share their individual challenges and stories with the families they were surrounded by.”
Physical therapists showed parents feeding techniques for children with disabilities like cerebral palsy or genetic malformations. These disabilities often impact a child’s ability to chew and swallow properly — increasing their risk of aspirating on a piece of food. Now, those children are safer at home during mealtimes.
The therapists led sessions about how to loosen the joints in children’s hips and legs. These joints can become tight, uncomfortable and can impact a child’s mobility if not properly and regularly stretched and massaged.
Both kinds of therapies benefit children in the long-term by improving their mobility, feeding ability and often their nutrition status. When parents are equipped with knowledge about how to meet their children’s complex needs, the parent-child bond and the family’s integrity as a whole benefits!
Paul got to visit one session of this summer therapy camp last year. He was moved to see how invested the parents were in learning how to better care for their children, and by the spirit of love and joy fostered by this special camp.
“It’s not really a tangible thing, but sometimes you walk into a place and you get a sense or feeling. That’s what visiting this summer camp was like. When you walked in there was not a feeling of sadness, but of joy. You could feel the happiness enveloping you as you walked in from both the parents and the staff.”Paul Kim, Holt’s director of programs in Mongolia and Korea
As children and parents interacted, away from the stigma and difficulty of their everyday life, they bonded and grew closer together in a new way.
“You could see the brightness in their faces and also the burden they’ve been carrying,” says Paul. “What stuck out to me was the genuine love and pride they had in their children.”
After camp, families drove back to Ulaanbaatar in their cars, refreshed and rejuvenated by this summertime reprieve. Camp is coming up again this summer, and our hope is that it will become an annual tradition to uplift these wonderful children and families.
Learn more about Holt’s work in Mongolia!
See how sponsors and donors create a brighter, more hopeful future for children and families in Mongolia!