Walla Walla doc helps herders spin livelihood from camel's hair


Midway through summer, Dr. Patricia McIlvaine stepped away from the Walla Walla Clinic where she's an internal medicine physician and ended up halfway around the world -- on a mission.

Her 10-day stay in Mongolia through the Snow Leopard Trust was an outreach to spinners of camel's wool.

With help from a $10,000 Anheuser Busch Foundation grant, her quality control effort was to improve the fine wool product in order to sell more of it and support more efforts, Pat said.

She was previously in the landlocked nation, situated along the Gobi Desert, northwest of Beijing, 15 years ago. "I helped set up a handcraft project in conjunction with snow leopard conservation, to help the herders make a little more income and protect the endangered critters. It has grown to a lot of other countries as well with different products."

The grueling journey this year was July 24-Aug. 5. For armchair travelers and map readers interested in tracing her route, via Incheon, Korea, Pat flew unto Ulaanbataar, Mongolia, arriving at midnight July 25; flew to Dalanzadgad Omnogov, south of the Gobi July 26; drove to Gurvan-tes (Gurvan Saikhan), and after having the water pump on their van rebuilt, arrived at 7 a.m. July 27.

To improve the condition of the camel's wool, Pat's team helped herders properly remove vegetative remnants, stickers and fecal matter; take out the scratchy hair to leave the down; and spin it to a soft, fluffy yarn of a consistent worsted-weight gauge.

"This was an issue because some of the wheels were not properly constructed to adjust tension and needed oil, tensioners and tuneups to (enable) the herders to spin more easily," Pat said.

A lack of tension in the process would cause too-tight a spin and produce cord-like yarn.

By making identical skeins of yarn of the same yardage and gauge, they can be sold in various camel colors and dyed hues in combination, which are easier to sort and sell in the U.S.

Pat gave as favors gauge tools she cut from ACE hardware wooden yard sticks and attached a sample of the desired result for reference. They're used to measure nine to 10 wraps per inch.

Her friend Bayaraa, fluent in English and national coordinator for Irbis/Snow Leopard Enterprises project, served as translator. Three other Mongolian trainers worked with new spinners and found problems for Pat to troubleshoot.

"I took a little tool kit and spent most of my time fixing wheels and 'judging' results. We bought parts at the local hardware stores to replace nuts and bolts."

Ranging from 19-58 years, some of the 40 women who participated in the project came from up to four days' travel away, hampered by rain and mud en route.

"They live in gers (Mongolian yurts) and in small villages in cement block houses and herd goats, sheep and camels as a subsistence living," Pat said.

The twin-humped Bactrian camels, with their long guard hair and down layer, are sheared/shed in the spring, she said.

"Almost all the women were accomplished spinners and will return to their communities to help train other women to spin," she said.

Income from selling the finished product to the project in some cases increases their yearly income by 40 percent, Pat said.

"Several families work cooperatively to wash, dehair, comb and spin the wool. The equipment is purchased on a micro-loan basis (a la the Gramin Bank in Bangladesh)," she said.

Once the five-day training sessions were complete, Pat said they took the women to Snow Leopard Research Camp in Tost Bag, hiked up a canyon where the trap cameras are set up next to a water hole and saw photos of a snow leopard taken the night before, as well as a baby ibex.

"There are five leopards in the immediate area that are collared and tracked by satellite. Two are known to have cubs."

"The Gobi is fairly green this time of year as it is rainy season during late summer, but hot (95 degrees-plus). We were in sand dunes on the way back at the end, camel territory, an 11-hour trek with the other van breaking down three times, but that is another story ... " Pat said.

As these trips are quite costly, Pat said they worked to have the trainers able to carry the knowledge back to their communities.

Products are available at the online store through snowleopard.org .

Pat's husband, Jim McGuinn, owner-operator of Hot Poop on Main Street, was unable to go as he broke his toe just before her departure. It would have been way too painful as "there was a lot of bouncing vehicle time, 8-11 hours on 'roads,'" she said.

Local substitute teacher Lisa Wagner's daughter has autism, "so when I see children, students, families with a family member who has special needs I have real empathy for the challenges that are met each day."

The "White House" special needs facility along Reser Road by the Walla Walla High School soccer field is a place that works with students such as Lisa's child.

The site was closed for a couple of years because of ongoing road construction at Reser Road and Howard Street for Prospect Point, said paraprofessional Trudy Morris.

Seeing the outside of the White House in disarray, Lisa and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints youth group banded together on Sept. 25 and cleaned up the grounds.

They contacted lead teacher Karen Scott and paraprofessionals Trudy Morris and Shelli Fullen to get the ball rolling.

"As a group we saw the opportunity to help clear out debris, weeds and leaves. We brought our rakes, picks and leaf blower and went to work cleaning up around the perimeter of the house," Lisa said.

Ten youths and six adults filled 18 large leaf bags. "We hope to help paint the ramp and continue to do whatever it takes to improve this facility." Named for its color, the White House's classroom environment is used by high school-aged students, said Karen.

There they learn daily living "life" skills, such as general household chores, personal hygiene and culinary skills, maintaining a home by creating and using a budget and general yard upkeep.

Students, staff and family members feel they are part of a family within a home.

"The students eagerly take part in the learning of the life skills because they know that the house belongs to them. They enjoy having visitors so they can show off all that they are learning," Karen said.

"We are happy to once again be able to use our little White House and extend many thanks to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Youth Group for all of their generous hard work and ongoing support."

The budding Walla Walla Public Schools Farm to School program recently hosted a Taste Washington Day. All 10 district schools served a roast chicken lunch with locally grown fruits and vegetables during the event, said Pamela Milleson.

Credit goes to nutrition services staff members who did yeoman's duty to pull it together, she said.

Teachers and para-educators promoted the plan in the classroom and joined them for lunch. And volunteers prepared food, served and shucked corn, according to Pamela's mention in the online Week in Review newsletter.

In addition, local farmers and vendors worked with them to bring in "amazing" Walla Walla Valley and Northwest produce. From Taruscio Farms came pears and corn; Walla Walla Produce, peppers and corn; Edwards Farm, tomatoes; Key Farm, pluots; Welcome Table Farm, carrots; LeFore Farms, apples; Zerba Farm, corn; and Andy's Market, Northwest cucumbers.

Etcetera appears in daily and Sunday editions. Annie Charnley Eveland can be reached at annieeveland@wwub.com or afternoons at 526-8313.


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