Touched by a Mongolian smile

On a trip to Ulan Bator, Mongolia, where I lived for three months, I spent my last day visiting Verbist Orphanage, in the countryside.  Mongolia is a one-city nation, with the vast surrounding land composed of the Gobi desert or barren land.  The extreme temperatures from their minus 40 degrees to 40 degrees Celsius, harbors a harsh environment for the few scraggly plants to try and persist despite the desert clime. It’s not an inviting place, yet I boarded the plane with my ticket in hand for a country few people have ever heard of or want to visit willingly.

volunteering in Mongolia

My travels have been my biggest learning experiences in my life.  They have taught me to be stronger, to adapt to unusual and uncomfortable circumstance, and to survive in some of the hardest situations I’ve dealt with physically and emotionally.  As an orphan given a second life with my parents’ gracious love from America, I was taken out of the scenario I was walking straight into.

volunteering in MongoliaThe children’s faces were confused at first, when my group arrived to the orphanage.  I had gone with a group of Mongolian students learning English.  One of the students had befriended me with her kind heart and shared interest in journalism.  She invited me on this excursion, and I jumped at the chance to visit an orphanage.

We boarded a bus that navigated the country terrain bravely to our destination.  Outside of the city, there are no paved roads in Mongolia.  There is nothing but open fields of nomadic families living off the land and their horses’ back. This is no terrain to take a public transportation bus through.

Upon arriving to the compound, we found the orphanage surrounded by a six foot wall decorated with colorful murals painted by previous visitors.  It was strange to see this compound in the middle of the dessert.  We had not encountered another living person or any sign of civilization for hours.  Our last gas stop to fuel up was more than two hours ago.  There were no buildings out this far from Ulan Bator.

It appeared like a mirage in the desert, but was firm to the touch when I reached for the gate handle.  Children, as young as five-years-old, were chopping wood with an axe by the entrance.  I winced in default as I stopped myself from taking the axe away from them.  This was their life; the way they had to live to survive.   They seemed unsure and scared of us – people from the city with our clean clothes and washed hands.  Many gesticulations later, the children were swarming us with warmth and laughter once the barrier was broken.  I had the toughest time since I couldn’t speak but a handful of words in Mongolian, most of which were nonsensical and useless in my current situation.

“San ban o.”  I said hello and smiled a lot to befriend the children, but they played with me with no inhibitions.  Two Belgium graduate students were spending a couple months living in a Ger in the orphanage compound.  They were teaching them English and writing their thesis on the orphanage; therefore, I gave the children a great outlet to use the handful of words they knew.  Most could say hello, but few were brave enough to venture more conversation.

We played basketball and random games they created on the spot.  We had brought toys and some books to give to them, which brought the biggest smile and a touch of civilization to their orphanage.  There was no electricity or running water.  Non-governmental organizations fund Verbist, just enough for the bare essentials.  I may never see their faces again or hear how their futures turn out, but I know they have touched my life.  Volunteering has a way of helping the volunteers out more than those they seek to help.  It is a gift to lend your hand and time to others, and it is always rewarded with gratitude and a memory you’ll always deeply cherish.

Read more of my trip to Verbist Orphanage.

~ By guest blogger Kate Greer

Frequently Asked Questions about volunteering abroad

Recently, I have given a few presentations on volunteer vacations abroad, shares my stories and inspired others to travel. The question I get from my audiences after each presentation is “What do I do next?” So here is the answer to that and other frequently asked questions you may have about volunteering abroad.


How long do I need?

Typically a volunteer vacation program lasts a minimum of 1 week but you can go for as long as you can afford to. Students and retirees take 2-3 months off whereas professionals may only go for 1-2 weeks.

How much does it cost?

Each program is very different. Depending on the country, organization and activities involved, you can pay anywhere from $200-1500/ week. The costs include lodging, meals, airport pickups and some sightseeing activities. You will be responsible for your airfare and weekend trips.

How far in advance do I need to plan?

The further the better, especially if you need to save up or do a fundraiser to sponsor your trip. You need to plan at least a month in advance to arrange for visa, reserve your space, book your tickets, etc. Sometimes last minute spots open up at a discounted price but it’s rare.

What skills do I need?

You don’t necessarily need any particular skills. Most programs are designed so that the common Joe can be helpful and involved. An open mind, patience and respect for other human beings are probably the most important assets you can bring with you. If you have some experience in teaching, working with children or healthcare, it would help too.

What kind of work will I be doing?

Most places I have found have partners with local organization, such as orphanages, hospital, old homes, universities and schools. They send a constant flow of volunteers to do one of the following activities – play with children, do arts and crafts, engage elderly people, teach (English, Computer Science, etc.), or take care of babies.

Do I need to know the language?

All the places I volunteers at did not require me to know the language. There are interpreters if needed and basic English is understood in most countries. In Russia, language was a huge challenge as not many spoke English, but we managed just fine by speaking the language of games, arts and crafts.

Can I make an impact in a short time?

Yes, of course! You will be surprised to learn how much impact you can make on a life of another and on your own. When you bring a smile to a little child face’s who has not received much affection growing up in an orphanages, you would feel like you made an impact. When people see that you have taken the time and effort to travel all the way to their country and are spending your precious time with them, expecting nothing in return, it will stir a different kind of emotion. Undoubtedly, people feel more connected and grateful to each other, which is the entire drive behind the Go Eat Give movement.

What would a typical day be like?

A typical day would start early. Breakfast will be served at 8am, after which you will go to your volunteer workplace. Depending on the assignment, you may be scheduled to work for a couple of hours or half a day. If you are in a school, you can expect to work normal school hours. You would return to your home base for lunch. The afternoons are usually set for organized activities such as lectures, field trips, lessons, etc. (if the organization offers them). Evenings are free to explore the city, interact with other volunteers or catch up with your reading. Dinner is generally served early but you are free to stay up till late.

Is it good to go alone or with someone I know?

I have tried it both ways and see the value in each of them. I had more fun on the weekends since I had a friend to explore other cities with. We could plan our trip ahead of time because we planned sightseeing before and after our program as well. Going alone means you will get to meet people and make new friends. I have seen people pair up or go as a group over the weekend. I think if you are going for a longer period of time, going alone has more benefits. But be assured, you will never find yourself all alone.

If you have any other questions, please feel to reach out to me by leaving a comment below or email me at I personally reply to every message.

Patch unites global humanitarians in Atlanta

This weekend, I attended the Global Health & Humanitarian Summit at Emory University in Atlanta. It was three days of speakers, networking, exhibits and activities. The organizers want to make it into a movement, similar to the Global Economic Summit and it was a great first event. There were hundreds of people from all over the world in attendance.

Speakers included nonprofit organizations, individual humanitarians from different field’s doctors and Emory University students.  There were simultaneous sessions going on throughout the day, so one could move around to specific areas of interest. Rollin McCraty spoke about Heartmath and the Global Coherence Project, which I am a member of already. Andrew Chung, a cardiologist taught us about fat and heart disease. Student groups talked on human rights conditions in North Korea and the Emory China Care group shared their events and activities. I also heard Celeste Koshida educate us about the Women’s Federation for World Peace. A renowned artist from Athens, Georgia, Stan Mullins has built sculptures in Rwanda and Australia. He is commissioned for the Respect project. I also enjoyed Ed Wolkis photographic display of Tibet when he was touring with doctors.

I presented a session on Volunteering Abroad – from a writer’s perspective, where I shared about my volunteer trips to Morocco and Russia.

The highlight of the event was the closing speech by the real Patch Adams (who was played by Robin Williams in the movie about his life). Patch has a larger than life personality and is engaged in many humanitarian efforts. Contrary to his clown act, he is actually very intellectual and well read. He has a deep understanding of spirituality, life and love. Patch shared his personal story of being beaten up as a kid, having his father die in the World War and trying to commit suicide three times as a teenager. After his third attempt, he decided that he would never be unhappy again. He started practicing reaching out to people by riding on the elevators, calling wrong numbers and showing up at events dressed as a clown. He said he has stopped thousands of violent acts by just appearing in his funny distracting outfit.

Patch pays his doctors less than $300/ month but they love working for him. He promotes communal living where expenses are much lower, people support each other and you always have friends. He also gave us some tips and pieces of advice to follow as humanitarians, such as take care of ourselves, not to be led down by disappointments, our job would never be over but we must take time out for ourselves, etc. He showed videos of himself engaging children in a Russian orphanage and in Peru, as part of his humanitarian clown trips. It reminded me of my time in Russia when I was trying really hard to play with this little girl who just wanted to be by herself. She was an adorable four-year old but never smiled or interacted with anyone.

As expected Patch was hilarious during the two-hours that he was on stage! He was dressed as a clown and performed his antics to make the audience (young and old) laugh to their heart’s content. Walking out, I felt invigorated, inspired and determined to make a difference in this world.

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Orphanages in Morocco

Some of the volunteers from our home base have been volunteering at a local orphanage. Today I learnt a few things about the system in Morocco.

For starters, most of the kids in the orphanages are boys. This is surprising to learn since it is usually more girls than boys that end up in orphanages in every other country that I have come across. For instance the Mother Teresa’s home in India had 99 girls for every 1 boy as boys get adopted quickly and girls are abandoned by families. The reason in India for this behavior is that a boy is seen as an asset, sort of insurance in old age; whereas a girl is seen as a burden since she would consumer resources for her wedding and then would go off to take care of her in-laws family.

Here in Morocco, people believe that a girl is more affectionate and better caretakers of their families. Parents feel that their daughters would be more reliable than a son, who would probably be more involved with his wife and family, than take care of his parents. More and more women in Morocco earn a living these days. 25% of doctors, lawyers and government administrators are women. The average age of a woman getting married is 29 years old. All these statistics prove that the value of a girl is clearly increasing in this African country.

A second reason cited for the large number of boys in orphanages is that when women get pregnant illicitly and want to get rid of a baby, often times the gender is a factor in their decision. Women feel more comfortable abandoning a baby boy thinking that he would be better able to fend for himself. You will never find a street-girl or homeless girls here. A girl is more prone to exploitation, therefore less likely to be abandoned. Also, some of these women fear that if they kept their baby boy born out of wedlock, he may grow up to attack his mother or take revenge in some form.

The process of adopting a Moroccan baby is fairly simple, whether you are a citizen of Morocco or a foreigner. You must be a Muslim or convert to a Muslim before filing for adoption. Some of these children have living parents who are unable to care for them. In that case, you can gain custody of a child and bring him or her up like your own but would need to keep the family name. Only a couple or a single woman can adopt, single men cannot. The process takes about six months. Currently, most of the children are being adopted by people in Morocco and Spain. The social workers keep a check on the kids and finalize the adoption only after two years of monitoring.