By pilot Roy Rissanen

Naadam is a traditional multiple-day annual festival celebrated in Mongolia. The festival is held in July and originates from the times of Genghis Khan. The main event is held in Ulaanbaatar, but each district capital and village holds its own local Naadam. The festival includes various cultural, music and other art performances. The main focus of Naadam is on three sports; archery, wrestling and horseback racing. The horse racing track is laid across open terrain with a length of 15-30 kilometers, depending on the age of a horse. Riders are boys between ages of 5 to 13. According to local custom, they usually ride without shoes, saddle or any protective equipment, which poses certain risk to riders.

Before noon on Saturday, we received a call for an urgent medevac flight. A 13-year old boy Baasandorj had been severely injured as a result of falling off a racing horse during the annual Mongolian festival of Naadam. Our team quickly assembled in the office to start preparations for the flight to take place the same day. The boy had a head trauma and was unconscious. A 750 kilometer road trip from the mountainous town of Tosontsengel was no option. The town has a gravel airstrip, which is regularly used by Blue Sky Aviation. Other regular flights to Tosontsengel ceased long ago.

The team was busy in making preparations, coordinating the flight with hospitals and doctors and filing paperwork, checking the weather and ensuring that we had adequate fuel for the flight. In the afternoon we took off from Ulaanbaatar with two local doctors. The aircraft had been prepared with a stretcher on board and five passenger seats to accommodate the doctors and accompanying family members. The flight took two hours and twenty minutes.

When arriving, we found out that the patient was not ready. The boy was still in the local hospital. To make it back to Ulaanbaatar the same day, we had to comply with rules for being on the ground well before sunset. The doctors hurried off to the hospital to get the patient as quickly as possible.

Just as it started looking that we might need to stay overnight at Tosontsengel, the car arrived with the boy. The doctors and family members moved the injured boy, Baasandorj, from the back seat of the vehicle to our basket stretcher. The boy was unconscious and apparently had trauma on his head and neck injuries. His body was wrapped in a blanket and his head was immobilised with a neck support. It was necessary to handle the boy very carefully and delicately to prevent further injury.

BSA radio-operator Baatarsukh secured the patient and passengers with seat belts, briefing them for the flight and getting the oxygen supply connected. Fortunately, we had a favourable wind and completed the flight just on time. The boy was in a critical condition. On arrival to Ullanbaatar, we were met by an ambulance and doctors, and Baasandorj was quickly rushed to advanced care. His life was saved.

We learned later that Blue Sky Aviation had been praised in the aftermath discussions on social media and websites. People may ask, why do we engage in activities like this? We are called to save lives. This is one of the important practical ways to convey love and care for Mongolians.

Two-year-old children cannot naturally distinguish the difference between what they simply ‘want’ and what they ‘need’. Unfortunately, the same can be said about many adults when it comes to spending and saving. Renee, Project Leader for the NGO Education Delivery Center (EDC), is working to change the culture of personal finance in her country of Mongolia, teaching adults how to save as well as shaping the thinking of children starting as young as two.

On a summer day in late June, Blue Sky Aviation flew a team from EDC and the Mongolian Sheep Association to the rural town of Tosontsengel for a day of community development training. Renee and her colleague planned a seminar on personal finance for adult women and another for teenagers. Flying with Blue Sky Aviation allowed the team from the capital to complete their seminars and return the same day versus a full day of travel each way by road.

The Training

About 35 women and a few men gathered in a large auditorium in Tosontsengel for Renee’s session on financial savings. Using a PowerPoint presentation plus three traditional Mongolian savings boxes in graduated sizes, Renee spoke to the group on how to save, what percentage of their income should be set aside for necessities and future needs.

After the training, Renee reflected on the response she felt from the attendees. Everyone agreed that they wanted to make changes, Renee said, “But when I asked, ‘Are you ready to make those changes now?’ only two people nodded their heads. I can tell they want to make changes, but they don’t know how. I left my phone number and told them if they need me, if they really want to make changes, they can contact us.”

And people do call the organization. “Constantly,” Renee affirms. “Per day I’ll receive about 30 to 35 phone calls, mostly housewives who are not working yet and looking after the kids. They call and ask for the training, and want to talk. We especially work with the wives because the women can be influenced up to 47% more than the men.”

The Problem

The Financial Literacy of a population – the knowledge, skills and determination to act in one’s best financial interests – is important to the overall economic well-being of a country. A World Bank study in 2012 showed that many Mongolians have a limited understanding of the basic financial concepts required to make savings and investment decisions. The Mongolian government understands the need for a national financial literacy program that would include education for school children and rural residents.

Changed Lives

Renee has many stories of lives changed by the financial training, but Tsetsegee stands out, a cleaning lady at a school who made only £81 a month when she first came to EDC for training. She wanted her two grown boys to attend university but didn’t have the money. Because of the training, Tsetsegee now runs her own small recycling collection business, is putting her two boys through university, and has bought the family a ger (the Mongolian version of a yurt).

Challenges and Solutions

However, changing the way people think and long-established habits does not come easily. “Mongolians believe you should have enough income to save,” Renee explains, “but we don’t think that. As long as you’re earning or making some money, just put up to 5%, or even 3% in savings.”

Although participants in a training session love the ideas put forth, they don’t all have the discipline to follow through. For this reason, EDC is committed to starting financial literacy at a young age through education in the schools, raising up a generation that can distinguish wants from needs and be financially responsible. “The government and Central Bank of Mongolia want us to reach the high schoolers with our new curriculum and teacher’s guide,” Renee explained. “We’ve published 14 handouts for adults and kids, and published the nation-wide curriculum for financial literacy.” Children are the key and according to Renee they are the easiest to teach. Using traditional wooden boxes in three sizes, money is divided between savings, spending, and sharing.

“It’s the easiest thing,” Renee says.

Thanks to Reaching the Light and Blue Sky Aviation, Mongolian children with special needs can now receive life-changing therapy

Four-year-old Namuun wears a white polka-dot dress and a bright smile that melts hearts. She runs the length of the physiotherapy room many times, wobbling occasionally. When asked, she sings a song, then runs through some speech therapy exercises.

None of this came easily to Namuun. At 18 months old, she couldn’t crawl, walk or talk. When her mother Oyunaa realised Namuun wasn’t developing normal physical and speech skills like her two older siblings, it broke Oyunaa’s heart.

Improved

Although Mongolia’s health system has improved greatly over the years, professional therapists for children with developmental disabilities are almost non-existent – especially outside the capital.

Fortunately, NGO Reaching the Light (RTL) provides therapy and rehabilitation services to families in remote rural areas.

It runs a developmental centre in the capital Ulaanbaatar and seven satellite centres across the country.

Blue Sky Aviation (BSA) supports RTL through flights to rural locations. There they screen new patients and follow up on those who’ve completed two-week therapy sessions at their centre in Ulaanbaatar.

Committed

When Namuun was 1 year old, a team of therapists flew to her province to screen special needs children.

A physiotherapist ran tests on Namuun and assured Oyunaa that, with regular therapy, her daughter would be able to walk. So Oyunaa and Namuun flew from Ulaangom to Ulaanbaatar for two weeks of intensive treatment.

Six months later, mother and daughter attended a second round of training and therapy.

Namuun’s remarkable improvement is due in large part to the significant commitment and perseverance of her mother, who gave up her job to stay at home with her daughter.

“Every day, I spend about five hours working with Namuun,” says Oyunaa. “When I do the housework, I talk, tell stories and read books to her. I ask Namuun what she needs, and she’s learning to express that.”

Thrilled

With Namuun now able to communicate her basic needs, the RTL staff who checked on her last July are thrilled at the progress she’s making.

“I’m really thankful for RTL and this centre,” smiles Oyunaa. “I’m so happy to see my daughter walk like a normal child. Now she goes to a normal kindergarten, so when people see my daughter, they don’t realise she has a problem.”

Oyunaa is also grateful for Blue Sky Aviation. “The first flight was so important because most families can’t afford government flights. The pilot was so kind and good with us. It would have been difficult to travel by car for two days. I’m really thankful for Blue Sky Aviation.”

Scared

Nine-year-old Nomin has also flown with BSA. Her first time was 2013, when she was just five years old. “It went up very fast and was a little scary,” she recalls. “I felt a little sick.” That flight, and subsequent ones over the years, began a radical change for Nomin and her family.

“When we met RTL’s people in Ulaangom, it was the luckiest moment of our lives,” says Anglan, Nomin’s father. For this loving family, it was the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

Not long after she was born, severe jaundice turned Nomin’s skin yellow. By the time she was admitted to hospital, the potentially fatal condition had damaged Nomin’s brain. “At 18 months,” Anglan explains, “she couldn’t walk and, at 3 years old, she still couldn’t talk.”

Confused

Nomin’s parents had no idea what to do next. They visited various medical professionals, but received a variety of diagnoses. Anglan didn’t know where to turn until they heard that RTL was screening children at their local hospital.

To the family’s joy, BSA flew Nomin to RTL’s centre in Ulaanbaatar. The 4½-hour flight saved a 2-day drive overland, just as it had for Namuun. “RTL understood what the problem was,” recalls Anglan, “so we started doing proper exercises with Nomin, and recognised a lot of improvement.”

As father and daughter sit on a metal bench, waiting to see staff at RTL’s satellite centre in Ulaangom, they play rock-paper-scissors. It’s clear the two adore each other. “We are really close friends,” says Anglan.

Like Namuun, Nomin’s cognition now appears to be normal. “She’s the top maths student in her class,” says Anglan, “but her balance remains a problem. Her writing isn’t so good, and running and physical work are difficult – but she’s getting better.”

During his 21 years of teaching chemistry, Anglan has seen 300 of his students become doctors. Thanks to BSA and RTL, he now sees hope and a bright future for his daughter.

“I hope Nomin will be a pharmacist one day,” her dad says. “I’ve already started to teach her!”