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Clothe the little children: Flag teens say trip to Mongolia changed their lives

Clothe the little children: Flag teens say trip to Mongolia changed their lives

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It starts with a jacket, a winter hat, a pair of boots.It ends with hundreds of Mongolian children wearing warm clothes, courtesy of Flagstaff.In between, there are hours upon hours of work: Sorting, wrapping and packing clothes; putting more than 500 boxes into a huge, 4,000 cubic-foot shipping container; getting that container past Mongolian customs; working 12 hours a day traveling from orphanage to school to charitable organization to tiny towns to make sure that each piece of clothing is put onto a child or needy adult."One of the greatest gifts in life is the ability to help others," said Ryan Strong, who traveled with eight members of the Mongolian Orphans Association to help distribute the clothing. "Nothing's more satisfying. I know I'm only 19, so I haven't experienced everything there is. But it's the most satisfying thing so far."Strong, who graduated last year from Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy, was one of three students who took part in the MOA effort. The other two were Robyn Flynn, a FALA student, and Emery Edwards, a FALA graduate and Northern Arizona University student. "The kids were stellar," said Geoff Gourley, co-founder of MOA. "They worked really hard. I can't say enough good about them."Other people who made the three-week October trip were photographer Dave Edwards; Kate Thompson, who headed up transportation and logistics; volunteer Jason Hasenbank; and MOA officers Sandy Brim and Diane Hasenbank. The group traveled to Ulaanbaatar, a major city, as well as to tiny, remote towns.The trip was fulfilling, said members of the group, but also challenging and, at times, very sad."At one orphanage, a 5-year-old looked like a 2-year-old because he was so malnourished and had been beaten so badly by his parents that he refused to walk," Gourley relayed in e-mails to the United States from Mongolia before he returned home. He said that the orphanages take kids in and try their best to provide for them, to teach then life skills, and to get them into school."However, schools will not take them if they have no decent clothes or simple school supplies," he wrote. "These places are precisely our targets to distribute all the wonderful goods from the people of Flagstaff."He said the children weren't that different from Americans."At times, the kids (especially the older ones) are picky about the clothes. After all, just because they have no money doesn't mean they don't have any style! " Gourley said in an e-mail. "They are inclined to try and pick clothing out of our piles. Blue jeans are especially requested…Everyone is also really reaching out for winter jackets, shoes, hats and gloves."Strong agreed that he also didn't see much difference between American and Mongolian kids."Children are children," he said. "Their smiles, their laughter. A lot of kids wouldn't have shoes, but were still smiling. They have so little, but they still know how to play, to be children."He added that some of the clothing sent should really have stayed home."It was freezing cold there," Strong said. "And we'd be pulling things out of boxes like these little cotton dresses. People there need winter clothes. Everybody referred to it as a Siberian winter."LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCERobyn Flynn, a senior at FALA, was also on the trip. She said that while she felt happy to have donated her time and energy to the journey, it was harder emotionally than she expected. "Giving clothes and donating that much time does such a minute amount of good. You really have to dedicate love and compassion as well as tangible goods to improve anybody's life," Flynn said. "At first, all I felt was compassion. But after the second week that turned to pity and disgust. Seeing children covered with their own filth, I wanted to put them in a tub and scrub them clean, but I couldn't. Seeing young mothers so skinny and dressed in these thin summer dresses. It was disgusting."She said that the experience changed her."Now I have no tolerance for people in this country saying their lives are so awful. Too many people find something to complain about," she said. "If somebody doesn't have the resources to live an enjoyable life — even to have a bed or food, just bread, and have an education — I don't know. I thank the universe every night for my parents and for just having a bed to sleep in. I'm so thankful."Flynn added that even though it was tough sometimes, there were parts that were very fulfilling. She recalled dressing a little boy in about five layers of clothing after finding that he wore just a vest, pants and a very thin jacket."His eyes were amazing, and he kept smiling at me as I put more and more clothes on him," she said.DRESSING WITH DAVEDave Edwards is a Flagstaff-based, internationally known photographer who first traveled to Mongolia in 1992 to photograph the people. He was so moved by the number of orphaned children living on the street that he started carrying duffle bags stuffed with children's clothing on later trips to Asia. That led to the Mongolian Orphan Association — which may change its name soon to include the word Flagstaff. "Dave is so intense and so enthusiastic," Flynn said. "The best part was dressing the children with Dave."Flynn said that some of the clothing is less than stylish, but would still keep people warm. Mongol teens would basically say "no way" in Mongolian, but that didn't deter Edwards."I remember he took this pair of red polyester flair pants up to this elderly man and said, `Yes, Yes! You are so lucky! Look at these pants. They're you!' The pants were hideous. He was just so enthusiastic and funny and that helped a lot. We had these amazing adults that set such great examples for us. They were very inspiring."Strong said that when Edwards went to clothe people, they'd end up with more than clothing."People would just see him and their faces would light up," said Strong, who took an independent study class at Northern Arizona University this semester to record the Mongolian adventure on video. "He's like a saint. The way he'll talk to someone. He had a way of communicating without even knowing the language."Edwards said it's the people of Flagstaff who should be praised."There were so many organizations and individuals that helped with no strings attached," Edwards said. And while the Mongolian government officials made MOA's job harder than easier, the Mongolian people were excellent."We'd meet teachers and principals at these schools who were upright as anyone you could imagine. Totally unlike the corrupt governmental officials who are known to steal from their people," he said.He said that a couple of years ago a charitable organization sent 70 tons of medicine and medical supplies to Mongolia. "It all disappeared," Edwards said, adding that it was probably sold to China or Russia.NEVER COMPLAINEDEdwards said that there is corruption throughout the country, and he knew that some of the clothing he put on children ended up being taken from them by older kids and adults who would sell it. Still, he said he believes that there are many Mongols who are concerned with the street children and will see that they keep their new clothes.Edwards said that he looks forward to seeing Strong's tapes. He recalled one case when Strong found a poor young girl holding a baby, sitting on the ground at a shopping center. He said Mongolian officials kept trying to get Strong to stop the videotaping, and would stand in the way of the girl and baby. One man actually kicked the girl to make her move. Strong got that on tape."This kid would go back again and again and again," he said of the Flagstaff teen. "I'm sure it will be an amazing documentary."And he sang praises of all three of the Flagstaff teenagers who went along."We would sometimes work through lunch, eating just candy to get by, and work until 7 or 8 at night. Then they'd be up at 6 or 7 the next morning and start all over again," he said. "They never complained."Mary Tolan can be reached at mtolan@azdailysun.com or 556-2253.

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