Inspired by son’s death, Jacksonville family helps establish medical mission to Mongolia
His favorite TV show? “Globe Trekker,” particularly episodes on Greenland and Mongolia.
“Dad, we have to go here,” he’d tell Steve Soud.
Because of Jonathan, Steve Soud, 53, eventually did go to Mongolia.
Because of that, he made it to an orphanage in Ulan Bator, the capital city.
And because of that, a brother and sister from that orphanage are now living in Steve and Cathy Soud’s San Marco home, in extended foster care.
In America, Usukhbayar Oyumaa, 13, and his sister Oyundari, 11, go by the names Luke and Anna. Sometimes with a twist.
“Anna’s nickname is Anna Banana,” Luke said.
“And Luke’s is Luke the Duke,” Anna said.
They’re learning English, making friends. They’ve learned about Halloween, become familiar with Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, “Star Wars” and Harry Potter.
They’ve traveled to the White House and DisneyWorld, to the Grand Canyon and Crescent Beach.
Jonathan, who began all this, wasn’t there with them. He died of complications from leukemia on Sept. 18, 2010, just four days before his 13th birthday.
But his death, Steve Soud says, set so much in motion.
As Soud traveled last year to Mongolia to get Luke and Anna, he wrote in a blog post how perhaps he and his wife could give the children a chance at a new future.
He also realized this. “After the catastrophic loss of Jonathan, these children in a very real sense offer us a type of redemption: a chance to bring life from death, and to help close the circle between Mongolia and Jacksonville … ”
That proven true. Jonathan’s older brother Paul, 25, says his parents have indeed found some redemption and great meaning in all that’s happened since Jonathan died.
“They had a lot of love left to give,” he said.
COMMON GROUND DURING CHEMO
Pediatric oncologist Eric Sandler and Jonathan found something in common during chemotherapy treatment in 2010.
Jonathan wanted to go there. Sandler had almost gone there.
Years before, Sandler had spoken with pediatrician Rita Browning, a missionary to Mongolia, about a trip to work with doctors there on childhood cancer. That trip didn’t pan out, but the idea stayed with him.
When Jonathan died, Steve Soud, in his grief, saw a chance to act.
“The day Jonathan passed away, I said to Eric: ‘We need to make Mongolia happen … I want you to go to Mongolia as a way to honor Jonathan’s memory.’ ”
Two years later, Sandler was part of a three-person medical team bound for Mongolia. It was funded by money donated to Wolfson Children’s Hospitals in Jonathan’s memory.
Sandler insisted Soud go too. “It might be part of your healing process,” he told him.
Soud began to cry. Yes, he thought. It could help him heal.
So he and his grown children, Natalie and Paul, paying their own way, joined the mission to Mongolia.
Sandler’s son Justin came too, and in Ulan Bator he organized a soccer camp at an orphanage that Browning, the missionary, helped run.
Soud came as an assistant coach, and when they arrived it was Usukhbayar — later to be known as Luke — who opened the door for them. What a nice young man, Soud thought.
Later, Soud took a break from soccer and was playing some basketball. Luke joined him in the game. Then up came a little girl.
The boy pointed at her. “Sister,” he said.
It didn’t take long, Soud said, for him to fall in love with both children.
Cathy Soud said he kept calling her from Mongolia and telling her about these children he’d met.
After he had to say goodbye, he kept their photos on his cell phone. He looked at them often.
Meanwhile, the medical mission to help Mongolian children with cancer has thrived.
Sandler and a medical team leave next month on what will be his fourth trip to the country’s sole pediatric hospital.
He’s bonded with his Mongolian counterparts. “Seeing how much they can do with the resources they have, and how they work,” the oncologist said. “It’s the most rewarding thing I do, I think.”
ADOPTION NOT POSSIBLE
Once back in America in 2012, the Souds looked into adopting the two children, though that wasn’t possible: Though their mother is dead, their father is alive, but not in a position to care for the children.
They thought that was it.
Life went on: They both work at the Bolles School, where Cathy Soud is head of foreign languages and Steve Soud head of college counseling.
Then Browning, the missionary from Mongolia, visited the family. She had adopted two children in Ulan Bator, and one was getting medical treatment at Wolfson.
Are you still interested in Usukhbayar and Oyundari? she asked them.
There was a possibility, she said, that they could be long-term foster parents.
And that’s what happened, after some complex arrangements; international foster care is a new concept to Mongolia, Soud said.
He traveled to Mongolia last year for the second time, this time to bring the children to a new home in America.
They arrived Aug. 28, and were soon enrolled in San Jose Catholic School.
Anna spoke no English, Luke a little, but they’ve picked it up. “They’re like sponges,” Cathy Soud said.
In conversation, they’re shy, though they do get more talkative as time goes by.
They like math at school, the U.S. women’s soccer team, the Jacksonville Armada, the Jaguars and Blake Bortles.
They have also have learned to love M Shack, pizza, hot dogs and chocolate chip pancakes.
The Souds say it’s important, though, for the children to maintain their Mongolian culture. They celebrate Mongolian holidays and in Jacksonville they have prepared buuc — mutton dumplings — a staple food in Mongolia.
For visitors, they recite the Lord’s Prayer in Mongolian.
The Souds aren’t sure how long Luke and Anna will stay with them.
Two Mongolian government officials visited their home in June, interviewed the children, checked out their situation.
They said they could stay another year, though Soud had to go back to Mongolia in July, with the children, to ask their father for permission.
He granted it.
For now, it’s year-to-year.
“My wife and I are at peace about this,” Soud said. “You lose a child, you realize what’s in your control and what’s not.”
They’re just enjoying the time they have, seeing familiar things made new through Luke and Anna’s eyes.
Take Halloween. The children were puzzled at first: So people give you free candy just by you knocking on their door?
They show a photo album, and point to their costumes last year. She was a bumblebee. He was Superman.
This Halloween? Anna said she’ll be either Maleficent or the Black Widow.
And Luke? He thinks about it.
“Maybe Captain America,” he said.
By Matt Soergel
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082