Big hearts under a Mongolian Big Top

Earlier this month I had the privilege of visiting Darkhan, Mongolia’s Shonhoodoi Circus School. This fall, the International Women’s Association of Mongolia (IWAM) was preparing for its winter jacket drive and asked if I could help find some children who might best benefit from the donated winter jackets they’d be collecting. The director of Darkhan Elite 22, the school where I teach English part-time, suggested the Shonhoodoi Circus School and provided a list of names and the ages of the students there. When the jackets were gathered, washed and ready for distribution, the women of IWAM drove up to Darkhan from Ulaanbaatar to deliver them.

Before the hand-over happened, we got a sneak preview of the circus performances that the children were preparing for; a competition in Ulaanbaatar, and a hometown debut at Darkhan’s Zaluuchuud Theatre.

The performers of Shonhoodoi are kids who have very little, or have lost what most of us take for granted. There are orphans, abandoned and otherwise disadvantaged children in this bunch, but if you didn’t know their stories, all you would see is a group of determined, talented, young athletes.

The school was created by the husband and wife team of Tumuroo and Battsetseg. They started the school to offer these kids an escape, an enviable set of athletic skills, an opportunity to travel, and a chance to be celebrated.

After school, for those who are able to attend one, the kids of Shonhoodoi hurry to practice as often as Tumuroo and Battsetseg can offer them their time. Shonhoodoi has recently been given use of a large facility in the center of Darkhan’s Children’s Park. It was previously occupied by a Korean Baptist church, but city residents said it should be made available to a secular organization that benefitted the city as whole. (The church built a well-funded, gigantic facility right across the street on private land, so happy endings all around.) The Shonhoodoi Circus School has moved in with the bare bones performance fixtures it owns, but with a recent grant promised by the city, it will be renovating the space to make it more practice-friendly. The kids train without padding on the floor save for thin carpets, and have depended on donations for costumes and accessories used in performances. Some local businesses have also pledged to provide hot meals to the kids during their practice sessions. For some, that meal might be the only hot meal that they’d eat that day.

The women of IWAM brought the kids winter jackets and a huge bag of clothes for everyday wear. After the preview performance, as the women loaded back into their vehicle to head home, the kids dug into the clothes and shared what they’d been given. We all fell in love with the kids that day. As routine as their performances may be in the realm of Mongolian circus arts (think Cirque du Soleil style acrobatics) they put tremendous amounts of heart and dedication into what they do.

I invited two Swiss expats living and teaching in Darkhan to attend the Zaluuchuud Theatre performance with us this afternoon. They asked about when to buy tickets and I’d told them not to worry, that the theatre was unlikely to sell out. Wrong. It was a full house for the circus. We grabbed three seats left in the back row of the main floor. All other late arrivals were ushered up to the balcony.

We were late because we were getting gifts for the performers and flowers for a few in particular. The two youngest performers of the circus had captured our hearts when we met them at their practice space. One boy lost his brother, father and mother in a tragic chain of events. He was taken in as one of the newest students of the circus school, and while he hasn’t quite mastered the performing arts, he’s completely nailed the knack for performance. He shines when he gets a chance to have an audience and smiles and laughs his way through his blunders. Another Shonhoodoi performer, at just four years old, has become one of the stars of the show. She also lost her parents. She was given a space in the first grade class at Darkhan Elite – the school has taken in many orphaned children on scholarship – but she had a terrible time adjusting to being on her own in a classroom. She’s been invited back for next year though, and is thriving at the circus school now, performing in an incredibly sweet acrobatics and contortion duet with one of my 8th grade students.

At the conclusion of the performance, after friends and family ran up on stage to give the performers flowers, giant teddy bears and boxes of chocolate, awards were presented to Tumuroo and Battsetseg for the work they’ve done with Shonhoodoi. The performers who won honors at the competition in Ulaanbaatar were also presented with special medals and plaques. All of the children ended up receiving recognition on stage and were applauded for their hard work and accomplishments.

When the curtain fell, I snuck backstage to bring up two packed bags of gifts for the kids in the school. After hugs and congratulations, I stepped back to watch the performers thank the Darkhan government representative who helped them organize the performance at the theatre. They gathered for a group photo wearing their new medals, clutching their gift bags and bouquets and wearing smiles that lit up the emptying theater.

It was a fantastic moment to be able to share with them. I hope to keep supporting Shonhoodoi as their students advance and as the school grows, and share their talents with those who can’t catch them in Darkhan.