Harry and Rob cycled across the world to raise money for a solar project at Lotus

Just Volunteers! News, Lotus Children’s Centre (Mongolia) 28 Sep 2019

Below is Harry’s report of their stopover at Lotus itself last month

Learn about their journey: https://www.farsidestudio.com/risingsuncycle

We think its important to give you our loyal following and supporters a genuine warts-and-all appraisal of Lotus. A rose-tinted ‘Live Aid-esque’ money magnet advert will not give you the understanding of the real issues and dynamics at Lotus. These workings are sometimes bursting with love, at other points riven with pain, but for the largest part are filled with the sheer mundanities and profundities of growing up.

In Summer time and in some ways, the 100 abandoned or orphaned children in Lotus’ care enjoy a childhood that Western parents would pay thousands for, sending their kids to Waldorf schools or fancy Summer camps. The natural setting in an idyllic river valley is the start. Mountains tower to one side, this presented a pre-breakfast hiking challenge, where we were guided up by a pair of 10 year-olds and the Center’s predominant dog, Tina. Delicious wild berries were foraged on the slopes, and enjoyed on the summit’s panorama looking over UB in the distance. On the other side, the Center is flanked by a river breaking into miniature deltas and meadows. We led one sunny afternoon expedition up to the river’s spring, the freezing spring-water is long thought to have healing properties, and whilst our party slurped from our hands, a dozen cars stopped there to fill up too.  
In the compound itself, a few horses graze peacefully, whilst a clutch of hens can be more raucous,  dogs have been adopted and watch for intruders on bicycles. From the toddlers in the nursery to the teenagers on the sports court, hours of the day are spent playing outside. Screens are noticeably absent, just a few of the older sponsored children may have a mobile phone, but the tactile world dominates the digital one. The food is plain but healthy, we had more vegetables here than the rest of our time in Mongolia combined. The tap water is the same delicious spring-water as described above. The kids learn baking in a professionally out-kitted kitchen, there is a fully-tooled wood and metal workshop, and there is an arts and craft center with some activity ongoing most days. But more significant than all this, as many parents will testify, the kids have constant access to a near infinite pool of playmates. 
In these respects and from these angles, Lotus may seem a like a holiday camp, and you may question if more money or support is really needed. But this is the Center at its most carefree, in the beautiful summer months when kids can play outdoors, and the season when almost all of volunteers come to help and enrich the place in a whirl of group activities. However, while smiling volunteers come and go with the breeze, critical permanent staff are outnumbered and overstretched. The Centre’s founder, Didi, counts some  veteran staff of over 15 years, but staff churn is high where the stress and strain of the job can’t be well compensated. Burn-out can be contagious, and constant turnover doesn’t provide the kids with stability in key relationships. Moreover, the bitter cruelty of the winters puts an end to much of the outdoor idyll, and frustrations can boil over as fingers freeze in these harsher months.
Harry getting a quick perm in the Lotus Salon
Living in a true community, rather than as the dependents in a traditional family unit means that the kids are incredibly self-sufficient. During our stay the cook took 5 days off after a non-stop fortnight with extra volunteer groups. And so, cooking and cleaning was then done by rota through houses, split into age and sexes. So a house of 6 girls between from 9-13 will be fully and successfully responsible for cooking for 80 people, and 6 boys around age 8 will do all the kitchen cleaning. Alternatively, one of the dogs was wounded badly in a fight, few of the older kids could quietened him down, and then removed dozens of maggots from inside the canine’s head and disinfected the wound. We also witnessed a group of young teenagers bake an industrial quantity of bread in several varieties, enough to feed the whole center for 3-4 days.
 
In familial normality all of these undertakings would likely be performed or at least marshalled by a parent and all on a far smaller scale, here mass cooperative tasks are performed with minimal fuss, we were left feeling like skivers despite our best efforts. The mass teamwork and collaboration is astounding, be it in the kitchen, bakery, or mass choreographing birthday celebrations. I feel that many of these kids’ social and team-working abilities and ‘EQ’ would be way above average. Moreover, I suspect their is English is better than the average Mongolian child too, namely because of the number and nature of volunteers they have through.
Communal dance sessions are a daily occurrence 
The above paints a youthful eutopia, but in reality it was no contrived or all-smiling model of harmony. Older kids of 7-8 often seemed vindictive or sometimes outright cruel to the toddlers: they might remove their toys, slap them on the head, or even playfully lock them up en masse in a mini ger. Currently, self policing is the quick fix, where the most mature ‘sisters’ (+15 y/o’s) protect the youngest from the 8-10 y/o terrors. . But more staff and supervision would help limit this natural ‘law of the jungle’, like my own mother did in sheltering Tom, my own younger brother, from my vindictive abuses. Whilst the staff being in short supply maybe helps the kids accelerate to a form of independence and self-reliance, this is perhaps at the expense of encouraging self reflection or other forms of subtle nurturing.
A mountain view of the Lotus Centre
Mahananda is a serial volunteer at Lotus, as well as running auto engineering workshops he helps the children in self-knowledge and connecting more positively to themselves and others. The origins of the center lie with Didi and her path of compassion which is rooted in the same ground as Mahananda – they were both disciples in the same spiritual order. He is transplanting the sustainability of his life in an Australian commune to Lotus: creating buildings made from sandbags and recycled bottles and tires, starting off a permaculture effort, and getting the circular notion of wast products spinning there. His work here is really aligned with our solar project and a fertile conversation grows out of this.
He explained how this is more to alter the children’s mentality as it is to alter their living conditions. The emphasis is to get the children to understand that what they need is sometimes already in their direct environment if used in the right way, to pull the children and staff from a reliance on external aid to a cycle of sustainability where their needs are met on the land about them, the sunlight above them, and through the in-house initiatives that will grow and create value for them. This lesson and mentality applies as much of not more to the inner existence as the outer one also being cultivated. 15-20 years ago in Mongolia, nomadic life necessitated circular living and people practiced the skills and mentality for that mode of living. Since then the excesses of waste capitalism have rushed in and broken that virtue, even in the relative haven of Lotus. The most fertile and powerful place to reinvigorate that sustainability is in the minds of children.
Arts and crafts 
On the day of departure, we had breakfast in Didi’s cabin up on the hill. After two decades of living in a Ger (yurt) onside and despite protestations, a donor built her a small house. Didi drew the line at running water, saying the piping was too expensive given the other needs of the Center. The charming vegan breakfast of muesli and smoothie sided with salted cucumber toast could have been served up in one of the trendiest vegan brunch spots in Amsterdam. 
I couldn’t wait to push past the pleasantries and get into Didi’s arc of experience, ‘it started with lunch for one kid, then his friend, then a few more, and then before you know there are 120 of them.’ Help and love isn’t measured and metered out with Didi or Lotus, but flows in a torrent from a deep point of the heart. 
She explained how traditionally there is no culture of philanthropy in Mongolia, at the very start Didi found it difficult to explain to neighbours why she was helping the street kids. They could not easily comprehend why she would want to help ‘bad kids without parents’, there just wasn’t a category for her actions. Moreover, government authorities and regulation in constant flux have proved a regular thorn in the side for Lotus. Each 2-year government lifespan has a mentality of ‘get in, get rich, get out’. Every cycle entails the wholesale replacement of official posts with the new family, friends and ‘favour creditors’, all this leads to burdensome changes in regulation for Lotus to comply with.
The densely populated ‘Ger’ district in Ulaanbaatar
When pried hard on the real obstacles she is facing she was eventually forthcoming: there is a lack of male role models at Lotus, especially Mongolian speaking ones. The Center’s location is around an hour outside the city centre, more in traffic, this is great for air and life quality for the kids, but again doesn’t help in staff retention. Donations are not always the most sensible objects, which can lead to the hoarding impractical and expensive divisive toys, whilst money lacks for heating and food.  

There are donor Scholarships for a few kids to go to the posh English school, but there are concerns an observed up-swell in the arrogance and cheekiness of the beneficiaries, probably derived from their more privileged peers.
The focus is now moving away from such western-branded schooling, where the school itself can be conceited and western culture and ideas are pedestalled without critique or circumspection. She is looking to start up again the school at Lotus, and balance the acquisition of modern skills with the absorption of Mongolian culture and the development of good character traits. A powerful but unorthodox donation would be to sponsor an extra staff member over a scholarship for  just one child. This is suggested as to where the money could best go, whilst maintaining a personal nature to the gift. 
In the end the most fundamental fact is that more money for basic operations is needed, this comes from increasing the flow of cash donations, or being able to cut the running costs of the orphanage. With vegetable gardens and burgeoning beehives, they are working toward food independence, heating and energy is the area that the Rising Sun Cycle is acting upon. Plain money is not always the ‘nicest’ gift to give for the donor, but it is often the most useful when through long experience the charity really knows how to best spend it.
No child is singly good or bad, just as no family or Center can be either. The sheer numbers of people and of relationships at Lotus brought intense insight into this law of variety. Sometimes when one thinks of orphaned or abandoned children, the mind emphasises the ‘orphaned and abandoned’ part, rather than the ‘children’ –  there is an assumption that the kids must be different in a myriad of ways. Though really the same core elements of childhood ring out: laughter and tears, cruelty and grace, home and community and yet missing and yearning. How this normality of childhood shines through in potentially catastrophic conditions is the real testament to the beautiful work at Lotus, and why we want to work so hard for its continuation and ever-improvement.

This journey in its course has meant many things to us, but we learnt in this short stay that Lotus provides the anchor of meaning. An anchor holding the heart in place and the mind true for when the legs grow weary, a place and a community that grounds this mad trip in meaningful reality.