Article by Catherine Gillman, February 15, 2018
Mark Guercio, the Dean of English and men’s soccer coach at Queen’s Grant High School, travelled to Mongolia this past summer to coach soccer and serve at a church in Darkhan city, Uul province.
Guercio assisted in establishing a church, which gained youth participation through English, Vacation Bible School, and soccer — the fastest growing sport in the country. In eight days, participation grew from 20 to 50 kids per day. The soccer league Guercio coached is still running today. This, however, is not the first time he has been to Mongolia, and his travels have had a major impact on communities there.
Guercio first went to Mongolia in 1998 as a part of the Peace Corps. The process of entering the Peace Corps was not an easy one; only the top ten percent of applicants were accepted, and in order to gain clearance they had to undergo additional physical and psychological evaluations. However, Guercio overcame these challenges with confidence in his conviction.
“I wanted to be in the Peace Corps because I felt called to serve,” he says. His motives centered on his strong belief in the phrase, “Speak first with your actions, and then, if they can’t hear you, speak with your words.”
Ironically enough, Guercio did not intend to travel to Mongolia at first. Though he was supposed to go to the Russian far east, the Peace Corps pulled their program from that region due to political unrest in Chechnya. Luckily, there was a slot open in Mongolia, which Guercio was able to take.
“It’s almost as if you’re time-travelling back to a much simpler period of history,” Guercio says of the places he witnessed in Mongolia. In the rural areas, he explains, a nomadic lifestyle is maintained, with people still living in gers, portable round tents traditional to Central Asia. In addition to the culture, the people Guercio was able to meet also left a lasting impression on him: “The generosity and love the people of Mongolia show to strangers is very unique.”
While there for the first time, Guercio was in charge of English education for the province of Bulgan in northern Mongolia, overseeing approximately thirty towns. He worked specifically with teachers to improve their English and communication skills, as well as conducting seminars for the entire province. The most successful part of this endeavor, however, was the creation of a library containing over one thousand English books, all acquired through donation from the United States.
Despite these achievements, however, going to Mongolia was not without its challenges. One of the biggest obstacles Guercio faced was health concerns: in just the first month and a half of his initial trip, he lost around thirty to forty pounds, and he contracted giardia and dysentery both within the first three months. Additionally, the food did not agree with Guercio, and he had to boil his water before drinking it. Surprisingly, though, even this had a silver lining: “The one good thing is that I would go by a local store, and that’s where I met my wife,” Guercio says. “She would always sell Pepsi and Snickers, and that was the mainstay of my diet.”
On his most recent trip to Mongolia, Guercio was able to return with his family. The major impact he made required the assistance of many in both his church and his community back in the States.
“Even Queen’s Grant helped out,” Guercio says. The students donated old soccer uniforms, which unified the league and helped to give them an identity.
Guercio hopes to return to Mongolia with his church in the future to continue with the soccer program.