When Julie Veloo moved to Mongolia with her husband in 2010, she wasted no time in learning the language and finding ways of giving back to her new community.
She also discovered the joys of horseback riding, something she could not have envisioned eight years ago.
“I was terrified of horses but this is the last surviving horse culture on the planet and here I am sitting in the middle of it, straight out of National Geographic, and I thought I should go for a ride at least — I did and I was hooked and I was just overwhelmed,” said Veloo, who moved to Vernon with her husband in May 2017.
That first ride led to what is now the longest annual charity horseback ride on the planet, the Gobi Gallop. The 700-km ride through the Gobi Desert in Mongolia is a fundraiser for the Veloo Foundation, which helps children whose families make a living scavenging at the dump in Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia.
“The project in Mongolia is aimed at getting everyone off of the garbage dump before scavenging in the trash becomes generational,” said Veloo, vice-president of the foundation, which she and her husband started in 2007 when they were living in the United States.
When the couple moved to Mongolia for her husband’s work in mining, with Rio Tinto, they expected to work with existing foundations as they had in the past, helping with schools and orphanages and disadvantaged children in the developing world, mostly in India and Malaysia. Because the company was paying for a 20-foot container for the couple’s belongings, which took up only about four feet of space, they filled it with about 4 1/2 tons of donated clothing and blankets.
“We ended up distributing it with the help of the international women’s association in Mongolia and we put the call out to all organizations that needed clothing and blankets,” said Veloo. “One of the guys who showed up really impressed us because he was working with the people at the garbage dump. He took me there and asked if I’d like to meet the people; I met them and there’s a lot of tragic, difficult situations and I kept going from one home to the next; we met a woman who had found a baby abandoned in the garbage whom she was raising as her own, and there are lots of stories like that one.
“We ended up in a ger (Mongolian for yurt) and there was this two-year-old girl who was half-dressed, and her six-year-old brother was taking care of her, and they had no heat, no food and he was apologizing to us because he had nothing to offer us.
“There wasn’t really an option for me at that point, walking out of that ger, somebody had to do something for those children. I had seen some really tough things but I’d never seen this, with the complicating factor of scavenging in the garbage, and minus 30 and minus 40 temperatures. So we started from there, and we were just going to build a daycare centre and then we had a lot of support from different companies; I found out the Mongolian government by their own legislation is required to support kindergartens, so we do get a bit of money from them, and I made it into a kindergarten.”
To meet its goal of eradicating scavenging for survival, the Veloo Foundation has a number of initiatives:
◊ Children of the Peak Sanctuary Kindergarten, where 150 of the most seriously disadvantaged children in the community of approximately 250 families are being fed, cared for and educated five days a week. At the sanctuary they have adult supervision, a warm place in the winter, three nutritious meals a day and varied educational and social opportunities. Additionally, the foundation is providing employment for many members of the community to oversee the health, welfare and nutrition of the children as well as providing training and volunteer opportunities for many. These people previously subsisted from what they could scavenge from the dump.
◊ Soaring Crane Summer Camp, which welcomes up to 300 children each summer
◊ Young Scholars Programme, which has eight children on full scholarship at local and international private schools in Mongolia
◊ Fran London Fabric Arts Centre, which has trained six women from the garbage dump to work as seamstresses and two men who have been trained to make furniture
◊ Foster Care Programme, where five children from abusive homes are now in full-time care while the foundation works to make their home life safe for them to be with their parents
The work of the Veloo Foundation has now been recognized by the Governor General of Canada, the Mongolia National Chamber of Commerce and the city of UlaanBaatar.
“The situation is not yet generational in Mongolia, this is a new problem and it happened after they kicked out the Russians in the ‘90s after the fall of the Berlin Wall, so while things weren’t all peachy-keen under the Russians, there weren’t people scavenging in the garbage; most of the people who are scavenging in the garbage are people who have lost their animals.
“The bad winters are getting worse and more frequent; in the winter of 2009-10, the winter we moved there, they lost 9 1/2 million animals in Mongolia because of extreme cold and deep snow, following the drought in summer, so the animals were already not strong, and then bitter cold and wind hit them and the wind is what kills them — it actually goes through their fur and gets to their skin and kills them.”
The foundation takes no operating expenses from donated funds, as they cover that themselves; 100 per cent of funds raised goes directly to the children.
The Gobi Gallop is the foundation’s biggest fundraising event, each year raising more than $60,000 US to support the project.
Gobi Gallop 2018 is now accepting applications for what Veloo says will be the toughest ride yet. This journey on horseback from Yoliin Am in the South Gobi Desert back to Khot Ail Camp, the home of Horse Trek Mongolia, takes place June 4 to 16.
It was thanks to Horse Trek Mongolia that Veloo got her start horseback riding.
“They had a small trekking company, I asked them if I could just go for a ride. It was really funny. My first guide was 10 years old and he put me on a lead and took me around; I felt like a moron but I didn’t die and it was OK and it was all right.
“I just fell in love with riding, the horses are amazing, the landscape is amazing, you can go thousands of kilometres and there are no fences, you stop and you just see; they are still very much a nomadic people and they are extremely welcoming; you literally stop and walk into their ger (their house), at any time of day.”
Veloo and her husband eventually purchased their own ger in the countryside, where they enjoyed spending time on the weekends surrounded by open land, peace and quiet.
“I would get up at the crack of dawn and make coffee and go sit outside and these absolutely gorgeous little kids would come thundering by on their horses, taking their animals to water — these kids can ride — and so I am a bit of an anthropologist by nature and I was really captured by the traditional culture and how it’s still being lived and how close they still are to it and how the rhythms of it and the patterns and the traditions are all still really active, particularly coming from northern British Columbia as I do, and seeing all the disenfranchisement of our own indigenous people, I was really struck by how close they still are to their culture in Mongolia.”
While Veloo and her husband left Mongolia in 2014, she is still there half of the year, working with her foundation, and speaking Mongolian, which she says she speaks “well enough to get myself in trouble.” Her husband returns four times a year as he continues to work on a consultancy basis with Rio Tinto.
The Gobi Gallop began after Veloo completed her first long trek on horseback and, buzzing about the experience, inspired a co-worker of her husband’s to comment that he’d like to ride a horse to work.
“That’s when I realized this was a great way of marrying my incredible passion for horseback riding and the beauty that is Mongolia, and adventure and excitement and there are lots of people in the world whose bucket list includes a trip to Mongolia,” she said. “It’s $3,000 US to enter the Gobi Gallop and people have to raise or they can pay the $3,000; there is a $250 registration fee which is non-refundable. Tax receipts are issued as well.”
The Gobi Gallop is open to 10 people, and Veloo said there are still a few spots available. For more information, or an application form, please see www.horsetrekmongolia.com/gobi-gallop.html
For more details about the Veloo Foundation, please see www.veloofoundation.com
Veloo will do a presentation April 7 at the Vernon library, where she will talk about Mongolian festivals, the country’s culture and horseback riding. All are welcome.
As well, An Evening Under Mongolian Stars takes place Sept. 22 at Paddlewheel Hall in Vernon. A joint fundraiser for both the Veloo Foundation and Cedar Bridge School, the event starts at 6 p.m. and will have a focus on Mongolian food, culture, dancing and music. For more details, see Cedar Bridge School’s events page on Facebook.