Verbist Care Center in Mongolia Helps Street Children
in Ulan Bator

By William M. Balsamo

Not far from the central railroad station in the center of Ulan Bator is a home for the street children of Mongolia. Begun in 1995 and hardly a decade old, the Care Center has serviced a need for the homeless children are given witness to the work needed to help them.

The center is under the direction of Father Gilbert Sales, a Catholic Missionary of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Over the seven years that he has overseen the needs of these homeless children, the center has grown and is currently working far beyond capacity. Originally established to care for 100 children, the number of children has grown to well over 120. - (a mere fraction of the 4,000 estimated to live in the man-holed sewers.)

The center is very clean and spacious, and is more of a home than an institution. the dormitories are immaculately clean and each child is given his own bed. A full-time nurse is on hand to care for the health of each child and medicines either individually donated or given by Western Embassies in Ulan Bator provide antibiotics for fevers and infections and remedies for common ailments. Dental care so essential for a child’s health, is provided by a nearby clinic.

Volunteers come to the center to work with the children teaching the basic skills and the fundamentals for higher education. All the children attend classes. Aged two to twelve years old, there is a range of interests among the children. The younger children are able to learn simple arts and crafts, while older children can become computer literate by learning how to serf the web for information. A computer room built with donations from the Japanese provides eight computers to enhance their literacy.

There is no funding from the Mongolian government which is currently financially strapped and international agencies and organizations such as UNESCO and UNICEF deal with governments directly rather than with NGOs. Yet, the charitable reach of the international community has left its impact on the center and has helped to build it into what it is today.

At the time of my visit a shipment of school supplies from an Italian-Mongolian friendship group was being prepared for distribution. Schoolbags, notebooks, pencils, erasers and clean uniforms were all part of the gift. It is the beginning for the homeless children to pursue their education.

Outside, behind the center, containers have arrived with clothing. The containers have made a long journey from Europe over land and the clothing will be sorted out and distributed to those who need them most.

On the grounds of the center there is a newly built basketball court complete with four hoops. It is the generous gift of a visitor who had seen the work of Father Gilbert and responded to an inner call. The basket all court also reflects a greater need - that of a small indoor gymnasium needed for the children to exercise during the cold winter months and to help the children built up strong, healthy bodies. As of this writing the gymnasium does not exist.

Father Gilbert takes me into a cellar basement. It is poorly lit and, at present, serves no purpose except for storage. His ambition is to transform this space into a gymnasium so that the children can have an outlet for their energy and the chance to build healthy bodies.

The children are well-fed and enjoy well balanced meals four times a day. Their growing bodies require protein and they consume the equivalent of four cows a month. The kitchen facilities, as with the entire center, are very clean and meals are hygienically prepared. The cost of food and the expenses needed to provide for the care of one child per year amounts to about $1,000 U.S. Broken down more specifically, it costs roughly $20 dollars a week to take care of a child. The money comes from private donors and the funds provided by the order of the missionaries. Private donations are also welcomed.

Although the children have all been taken from the sewers of Ulan Bator, not all of them are orphans. Most of them do have parents who can no longer take care of them. Such parents have given the Center permission to care for them, and regularly visit their children at the home. Most of the children at the Center are the products of poverty rather than abandonment. Their neglect may not have been willful, but a result of the poverty which has claimed their lives.

It is part of the philosophy and vision of Father Gilbert that the children be taught to eventually become self-sufficient and independent. For this reason children are taught self-reliance and encouraged to pursue their education. It is also part of the Center’s philosophy to instill confidence and to promote growth through love. All volunteers at the Center are encouraged to give of their time and effort without measuring the cost.

Hopefully in the year to come the children at the Center may become responsible adults and return to the Center to help the next generation of homeless children, In this way they will perpetuate the work which Father Gilbert has started.

If anyone would like to get more information about the Center please contact father Gilbert Sales at: cicmgibs@magicnet.mn




Catholic Priest climbs into manholes to minister to Mongolian poor

By Dianne Hardisty


Crouched beneath a steam pipe in an underground vault, a dirt-caked homeless man confessed to a Catholic priest that his life was hopeless.

Just released from prison, the man lacks the necessary work papers and cannot get a job. he and his wife are living in a manhole they share with two other men because it is the only way they can keep from freezing to death.

Once you move to the manholes, you have no hope, he explained.Life becomes empty, hopeless and dark. There is no future. Ulaanbaatar's homeless steal and scrounge food during the day. they scurry like rats into the manholes at night.

Coal-burning steam generating plants crank out heat that flows through underground pipes into apartments and buildings in Mongolia's capital city of 800,000 people. Scattered along the pipelines are manholes and underground maintenance vaults that workers use to gain access to the heating system. the manholes also provide shelter to the thousands of homeless men, women and children seeking refuge from winter temperatures that sometimes dip to minus 50 degrees.

On Wednesday nights, the Rev. Gilbert Sales, an Immaculate Heart of Mary Missionary, climbs down Ulaanbaatar's manholes to bring food and compassion to the desperate underground world.

The poor, homeless and unemployed in this former Soviet backwater are growing in number as Mongolia struggles to rebuild its economy and government after the collapse and withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1990.

Financially subsidized and controlled by the Soviets for several decades, Mongolia's agricultural and factory production collapsed with the Soviet's economy. Mongolians turned to the world of nations for help. Among those they contacted was the Vatican, which dispatched a handful of missionaries, including Sales, in 1993 to this predominantly Buddhist nation.

"The Catholic Church has become known for its work here with the street people," Sales said. "It is a very powerful witness."

The missionaries began first with the homeless children who knocked on their Ulaanbaatar apartment doors. Gaining the children's confidence, the priests were soon invited into the manholes, where the children hid. The priests began collecting the children from the streets -- at first fifteen and then forty. They built a four-story center that now houses 120 children and also feeds and cares for homeless adults.

Every Wednesday evening, Sales, a kind-hearted priest from the Philippines,who volunteered for assignment in Mongolia, returns to the manholes looking for children who are fleeing abusive homes or who have been abandoned by their families.

"When a child is there for more than six months, chances are they will stay," he said, explaining his weekly visits. "They begin to enjoy the freedom of the streets."

Hardened street dwellers likely will not adapt to the routine at the Verbist Care Center, where children sleep on tiny bunk beds that line the dormitory rooms; eat in a large dining hall; dress and bathe together; and devote their evenings to doing homework, reading and playing games. it is structured. it is safe.

A staff of thirty, including the 39-year-old priest, dospenses hugs and love to the children. But, sales, insists all the children at the center attend school and develop job skills so they can break from their cycle of poverty. if they refuse, they leave.

Four girls sales rescued from the manholes have done so well in school that they are ready to graduate and want to attend university. two want to be teachers, one a lawyer and one a doctor. Sales has promised the girls he will find the money somehow to continue their educations. His vision is to have his former street children return and help run the center.

What sales is finding on his weekly trips to the manholes is an increasing number of jobless and homeless adults, who he said now outnumber the children by many times. Government officials estimate the number of children living in Mongolia's manholes is four thousand. No estimate is made for the number of adults. Often these are displaced herdsmen and former factory workers who pour into Ulaanbaatar from the countryside hoping to find jobs. Instead they find misery.

And with them often sit their families -- wives and young children. Hoping to protect their children from the crime, sexually transmitted diseases, illnesses and hunger that are prevalent in the manholes, many parents have placed their children in Sales' care.

"We are taking in the most vulnerable children and girls," said Sales, who explained the children at the Verbist Care Center continue to see their parents during regular visits and weekend trips "home" to the manholes.



CHILDREN AT THE VERBIST CARE CENTER







Fr. Gilbert Sales CICM
The Verbist Care Center
Bayangol District
Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
Tel: 369295, 369297
E mail: cicmgibs@magicnet.mn


Donations can be made through their banks in Mongolia
Verbist Care Center
Trade and Development Bank
Account Number: 404045705
Ulan Baatar, Mongolia


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