Mongolia is a very cold place. Winters are extreme and the capital city of Ulanbatar is the coldest in the world.
To survive, many of the homeless live in the healing ducts below the nation's cities, including many orphans who huddle together to keep warm in temperatures that often plunge to -40 F at night.
When internationally-renowned photojournalist David Edwards of Flagstaff visited Central Asia in 1992, covering poverty on assignment for Black Star, he met some of these orphans in Mongolia and was moved to help them.
Edwards saw the need for relief efforts, especially to meet the lack of well-made and warm clothing that could allow a child to go to school. In some cases, warm winter clothing could even saves lives.
In 1993, he hand-carried used clothing in duffle bags to orphanages in Mongolia.
Back in Flagstaff in 1997, Edwards spearheaded the effort, with the help of some local friends, to start the Mongolian Orphans Association, which changed its name in 2000 to FIRE — Flagstaff International Relief Effort.
Edwards served as FIRE executive director from 2000 to April 2004, when Meredith Potts, a former FIRE assistant director and studio manager at Edwards' studio, assumed the duties of director.
"I believe this compassionate concern for the welfare of people in other lands is a reflection of the spirit of Flagstaff," she said in a phone interview Thursday. "The amount of support that we have received for our overseas effort has been a true example of the generosity and global awareness of the community."
From 1999 to the present, the organization has completed six distribution trips and shipped nine 40-foot containers to Mongolia.
Volunteers have hand-delivered 60 tons of winter clothing to 50,000 individuals, and provided 80 computers and 6,000 English books to a dozen schools.
Potts has been one of the key players in the success of the organization, working to more than quadruple the annual income to its present level of $80,000.
But FIRE still needs money, as donations have been down this year.
Often medical and educational supplies were shipped over with the warm clothing. To date, the nonprofit has delivered $610,000 worth of medical supplies and training to more than three dozen clinics and hospitals.
Today, FIRE is redirecting its focus, moving away from clothing drives and toward providing medical and educational help to Mongolia.
"We feel not only that the medical and educational project is more sustainable and empowering for the people of Mongolia, but it's also a third the cost to us," Potts said. "Also, it's more fundable by grants. We're looking to expand our financial resources, as well, as we've never been able to receive grants for our clothing projects."
As part of a new direction, the organization has an office of its own for the first time, having moved out of the David Edwards photography studio on Heritage Square in January to a new office on Birch Avenue.
In mid-September, Potts will be traveling to Mongolia to get things ready for the arrival at the end of that month of a team of medical personnel from Flagstaff.
The trip will be in collaboration with Dr. Kelly Reber and Dr. John Drrham of the Norther Arizona Volunteer Medical and Surgical Team of Flagstaff.
Reber is a podiatrist and Durham is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in hands.
This team of medical professionals has been conducting medical mission around the world for 15 years.
"In all of Mongolia, there's one orthopedic hospital," said Reber, who joined the FIRE board of directors this year. "There are patients in the outer regions who travel seven to eight days in a car with an orthopedic injury. The only training hospital we found is fairly poorly equipped. Our goal is to go over with supplies and train them in the use of screws and plates, and we'll do some surgeries with them."
Reber will be making the journey with his wife Janice, an oncology nurse here.
Two other nurses will also be going and a nurse practitioner, a total of six on the team. Initially the surgical team will work closely with the trauma Hospital of Ulanbator and Tov Aimag hospital in Zuumodt.
In thelLong term, organizers hope to spread orthopedic resources to the countryside of Mongolia, where two-thirds of the population resides.
"We hope to develop some sort of model we can spread to more and more hospitals," Potts said.
Because of the inflation rate, many children and adults walk around on broken legs that have never been set, he said.
Betsey Bruner can be reached at 556-2255 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Infobox: To find out more about the efforts and the needs of the Flagstaff International Relief Organization, call the office at (928) 779-2288 or visit the Web site at www.fireprojects.org. FIRE is a 501(C) 3 nonprofit
FIRE courtesy photo
Doctors at the clinic in Moron, Mongolia, including American Kevin Flanigan, second from left, pose in September 2005 with a FIRE shipment of medical supplies.