Imbler FBLA president and 4-H Ambassador embarks on Goodwill journey to Mongolia

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer June 01, 2011 08:52 pm
Living in a tent and herding cattle isn’t everybody’s idea of a groovy summer vacation. But for Jaden Bales, it’s a dream come true. This month, the 15-year-old Imbler High School sophomore is headed to the far-off and storied land of Mongolia. He’ll not only learn about a foreign culture, but also help the U.S. State Department spread the word about land reclamation and soil conservation.

And the month-long mission doesn’t end with that. Bales, Imbler FBLA president and 4-H ambassador, will distribute helmets among young Mongolian equestrians, present Mongolian children books in English, and otherwise try and bridge the cultural gap between the U.S. and the landlocked country in east and central Asia.

Mongolia is a challenge Bales looks forward to. He knows farm life, but living with a host family in the Mongolian hinterland will be an experience unlike any he has had.

“It’s such an unknown place to most people,” Bales said. “The culture’s so much different and this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Last fall, Carole Smith, Oregon State University’s Union County Extension chair and 4-H agent, learned at a conference that the State Department planned to assemble a group of teenagers from western states to go on a goodwill journey to Mongolia.

Back home, Smith spread the word. Bales heard about it and made up his mind to go. The first step in a rigorously competitive selection process was to put together an application and resume.

“Jaden had to sell himself on paper, and that’s not easy. Somehow he had to make himself shine through,” said Smith.

An initial field of 157 applicants was gradually whittled down. Bales survived the first cut and won an interview.

 “Once I got the interview it was down to 60 kids. Then they picked 28 to go plus two reserves,” he said.

He was one of six teens from Oregon tapped for the trip. In May, the whole group traveled to the University of Wyoming for an orientation session.

“It was laid back, but they did want to know how I thought I would benefit from the trip, and also how I can benefit the group,” he said.

The Wyoming session also included talks by various Mongolia natives who spent time detailing cultural differences.

Bales said the idea was to start acclimatizing the youngsters to something that’s wholly different from what they’re used to.

All along, the teens picked for the trip have done independent research on everything from language and customs to agricultural practices and ways to improve the Mongolian landscape.

Now, the itinerary is set. On June 16 the group will fly to the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbataar, and there spend a week learning about the country’s political system and government.

After that, participants will spend two weeks at locations in the city and in rural areas. Bales said he expects to live for a while in a yurt camp, helping to care for livestock.

Wherever the American teens go, they will spread the word about best environmental practices.

“Mining and overgrazing has been a deterrent to the environment in Mongolia,” Bales said.

In the fourth and final week of the trip, tour participants will take in the annual Nadaam festival, a celebration of the traditional Mongolian “three games of men” — wrestling, archery and horseback riding.

During the festival, Bales will hand out equestrian helmets to young Mongols. He hopes the helmets, donated by the 4-H Leadership program, will help avert tragedy.

“Head injury is the number one cause of childhood death in Mongolia,” he said.

Also in the way of     ambassadorship during his Mongolian sojourn, Bales will distribute colorfully illustrated children’s books that were donated to the cause by Carol Lauritzen, an education professor at Eastern Oregon University.

Bales knows that for at least part of his stay, he will be living in primitive conditions and doing without things he’s always taken for granted, things like running water and electricity.

That’s not nearly enough to change his mind about going, though.

“I’m not sure what to expect, but I’m looking forward to the experience and adventure,” he said.

His mother, Becky McCay, said she isn’t too worried about her son. She is confident he can handle what likely will be a rigorous — but rewarding — trip.

“Anything he sets his mind to, he accomplishes,” she said. “I think this is a great opportunity for him.”