Not far from the railway station in Mongolia’s capital city of Ulaanbaatar is The Verbist Care Centre, home now for many of the city’s street children. These are the lucky ones, having escaped the nightmare of living beneath the city’s streets in the tunnels that house the vast heating pipes of the capital city. By day they would have been scrounging for food, at night taking refuge from the bitter cold beneath the manholes scattered around the city where disease, hunger, despair and crime are the only things that thrive.
VCC is a calm oasis in this busy city, run under the direction of Sister Lucilla Munchi, a bubbly, compassionate yet thoroughly organised missionary sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Though run by a Catholic order, VCC, like all other care centres in Mongolia, is run on non denominational lines. Sister Lucilla and her sixteen staff help the children to develop self confidence by learning to love and respect themselves and each other. Through this support and tutelage, they learn to be self-sufficient, responsible and independent young people.
The VCC opened its doors in 1995, by the CONGREGATIO IMMACULATI CORDIS MARIAE ( CICM) and since then it has received over 120 children who would otherwise have had no hope: some from destitute families, broken or abusive homes, some are orphans, some even born beneath the streets of Ulaanbaatar. Some were brought to the centre by their own parents, knowing that they could no longer cope, others by social workers, the police and sometimes even caring, concerned friends, neighbours and family…the good of the child being their driving force. And still they come. In the early days of the centre, the priests and brothers made constant visits to the manholes around town, providing food and offering help and a home for the vulnerable children they found there.
Today, as soon as you walk through the front door of the centre, you are met not only by tempting smells from the kitchen, but also by relaxed, well dressed children, happy within themselves and happy within their home. The centre is spacious, bright and clean, feeling far more like a home than an institution. They have space outside, including a basketball court and a large indoor space in the basement, crying out for funds and ideas to change it into a gymnasium, where the children will be able to exercise and let off steam during the bitter winter months.
There is a full time doctor, a specialist in paediatric care, who not only looks after the childrens’ medical needs but also plans the menus, ensuring that the meals are nourishing, varied and delicious with fresh fruit at least once a week. The children also have an input and can make requests for birthdays and other special occasions. The trained cook supervises the older children as they learn how to provide for themselves and their families in the years to come.
Sister Lucilla made a brave stand when she first arrived, insisting that more money would be spent on nourishing food and a healthy diet, and that economies would therefore quite naturally happen on the regular medical bill. Her decision was justified as can be seen by the healthy, lively children.
Now, at the start of 2009, there are sixty five children living in the home, sleeping in family rooms on sturdy, wooden bunks, boys on one floor, girls upstairs, with a family teacher or care giver to every 10 or so children. They attend several different schools, going in two shifts. The morning children get up at 7am and eat their breakfast at 7.30. The children who go to school in the afternoon get up at 8am and clean the house before they eat at 9. Both groups have two hours set aside each day for homework.
At weekends they take it in turns to help with the cooking and time is spent on Saturdays giving their home a really good clean. They take part in all the usual school sports activities and competitions and a great effort is made to celebrate birthdays and all the National Days.
The children are encouraged to take their studies seriously and all are ambitious. Great time and care is taken over the discussion of suitable courses and careers. Over thirty graduates of VCC are currently studying in either technical training or in university, following courses in medicine, computer studies, teacher training, geography, law, social work, engineering and foreign languages. Six young adults are already in the world of work; a nurse, a hairdresser, a translator, a seamstress, a cook and a secretary, all of altwhom have been re- united with their families and help to support their siblings both financially and emotionally.
Moving out of home into further education can be challenging for any young person, so contact and counselling continue, as well as financial support. The students often return to the home during weekends and holidays to help staff and act as role models for the younger children. Considerable time and effort is spent in trying to locate estranged families and where appropriate these families are re-united.
VCC has a summer camp in Gachuurt, 35kms out of town where the children all spend the hot, summer months when school is finished, enjoying the space and freedom of the countryside, learning how to swim and climb in the hills, as well as learning how to grow vegetables, chop wood and other useful life skills. VCC is giving these children their lives back.