The First National Bank/Habitat Global Village Trip to Bulgaria cemented the fact that giving to others matters. Planting seeds of hope and love in the hearts of others matters. No matter the perceived impact you make- how big or small- all acts of love, kindness, and helping others matter.
I have always been a driven and compassionate individual, with a fire inside of me that no wind could blow out, no water could calm, and no earth could tame. I am a person who has wanted nothing but to change the entire world. A truth that was possible. Possible in a way at first, I misunderstood, and in a way that I found, I couldn’t do solely on my own.
My Bulgarian journey didn’t start with Habitat for Humanity. About seven years ago, I swore in as a Youth Development Peace Corps Volunteer in Bulgaria.
A horse and buggy in Bulgaria.
When I first arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, I noticed the cement apartments everywhere, which were left over from the communist society. I thought to myself, I can do this, this isn’t that bad. We were treated like royalty, stayed at nice hotels and ate the best food for the first week or so of our 27-month journey.
We were then split into small groups of four to five people and taken to host sites to begin our three month language training process. When I arrived at the host site, I noticed minor things, horse and buggies still actively running, farm animals moving with the flow of traffic, and seemingly big houses. Again, I thought ok, this isn’t too bad.
After the rigorous language training, I was placed in a town called Dolna Banya, for the next two years. My first priority was to immerse myself in the culture, town, build relationships, and strengthen my Bulgarian language skills.
I worked in an orphanage and a Social Support Center that offered resources, free counseling, and parental guidance. The center officially opened a month before I arrived. In the beginning, one of the challenges we faced was having youth come to the center and community to use our free resources. The community wasn’t familiar with the idea of teaching or learning life skills, which is why being able to implement the activities in such a short amount of time, with some support from our community, ended up being our greatest success.
My primary assignment was working with at-risk youth. Weekly my co-workers and I would plan and implement activities for the youth and take those activities to the high schools and kindergarten classes at least three to four times a month. The youth would also come to the center where we provided games, homework assistance and more serious activities and guidance on topics such as trafficking of persons and sexual health education and awareness.
I organized many summer camps for orphan and community youth. We had courses for English, drawing, nature (personal discovery), and crafts (making something from nothing). I also organized, planned, and implemented prevention and awareness camps for trafficking of persons, dental hygiene, emotion awareness, and AIDS/HIV across Bulgaria.
The original neighborhood park.
One of my favorite projects completed in Peace Corps, was the restoration of a children’s park. I walked by the same park for eight months, where I never saw one child playing. It was completely dilapidated. It was rare to see a nice area for community members to find peace and play. One day my boss asked me what we should do for our 1 year anniversary, of the Social Support Center, which happened to fall on the same day as, “Children’s Day.” I asked her where her children played. There was a moment of silence, and she said, there isn’t anywhere to play.
Children playing in the park on Children’s Day after renovations and improvements.
My boss loved the idea and took it to the Municipality, which funded the restoration of the park. After about a month of hard work, using many resources, we were able to finish the park, which included a swing, jungle gym, sand pit, monkey bars, and many interactive games painted on the ground. For the remainder of my stay, I saw children, youth, and parents enjoy the park.
Of course, there were many more needs like safe and affordable housing, job security, mental health care, health care and more, but I had to figure out what I was capable of providing and focus on those strengths.
Sometimes things aren’t always as they appear. It becomes an interesting cycle when you live in a native country for long periods of time. At first nothing appeared to be that devastating. I couldn’t figure out why people seemed so sad, felt so unsafe, so unmotivated. After some time, the novelty and excitement of the experience wore off and I started to become a Bulgarian, I started to see the reality of their living.
The houses seemed worse than I remember, the streets were more damaged than before, the resources became scarcer, trash cans seemed to be for meals instead of disposing waste, the winters seemed colder, clothing became more torn and the nights became more unsafe. At this point, I understood the language as my own, the stories seemed darker, the cries became louder, the needs seemed greater, and the pain became my own.
The abuse witnessed and the instability and insecurity became my new norm. Again, I cycled back to thinking things don’t appear to be that bad. Overall, at the end of my service, I felt proud for what was accomplished. I felt worn out and as if I had given my all.
My views changed, I realized I didn’t save the world, but maybe I made a contribution to the youth and community members in my Bulgarian town. A contribution that I knew would continue with the knowledge and training materials my Bulgarian co-workers would continue to share and teach. I hoped I had given them hope to empower our youth and to fill the race gap, to build a stronger and safer community by one common understanding; that all the youth were the future and it is up to the individual families and community members to work together to support them, guide them, keep them safe, and love them.
With some of the local children.
Leaving the youth, who I cried with, worked with, taught and fought for, was the most devastating part of the goodbye. My heart felt broken, tears couldn’t be held back, and I began to feel unsatisfied. Even though I prepared “my kids” for my departure, it didn’t make things any easier. I was begged to stay and “my kids” couldn’t stop crying. As I worked my way down the long road to my apartment, they screamed and chased after me behind the orphanage gates. They had to be held back by security and staff so they couldn’t leave the grounds. They reached their hands out and called my name. I could hear them for most of my walk home. This in fact, was the longest walk of my life.
This is part 1 of my three-part series, “Cemented.” Read part 2, “Returning to Bulgaria.”