Kez’s Trip – July 2015
This Summer me and a wonderful new volunteer, Paul, spent 2 weeks in Bulgaria supporting the adults and children in institutions around Razgrad and Sofia. It was very special to have a third member joining our team called Vesela – a Bulgarian lady from the town of Pleven who was able to provide us with invaluable insight into Bulgarian customs, act as translator, speak at length with the carers and residents as well as making up the final member of our international team by being a fabulous volunteer.
The first week was spent with the adults from the large Samuil institution and some smaller homes. It’s hard to imagine what day-to-day life is like for these forgotten people who spend each moment of every day within the same gates with the same routine, eating the same bland food and being herded en mass to keep control, seeing the same people and never accessing the community around them.
Each adult is so unique when you spend time with them and yet being part of the institution depersonalises them – each person has their story and we were so privileged to be the people who would listen to them. I don’t think any of us can comprehend how much joy can be found in the simplest of things. To eat sweets, drink cola, play catch, take a photo, even to step outside the gates – each new experience brings excitement and smiles like nothing else. They are constantly grateful, giving hugs, kisses and wishes for health and luck with endearing terms and tears in their eyes. Most importantly we were able to be there, to smile with them and show that they have not been completely abandoned or forgotten. To show that there are people who care. Holding Out Hope is the only charity who supports these homes and they do not get visitors. The carers and workers in the institutions were also very obviously grateful for our help and very touched by our care and welcomed us with gifts and food.
Activities during the week included taking them for meals, to a zoo, to a nearby park for a barbecue and even taking a group of 40 to Varna to the beach and to see a dolphin show! Each of them came away with a ticket with their name on and memories to last a lifetime. It is so precious to them to have something of their own and after seeing how proud they are to show you the single photo they own of themselves in an old empty photo album, we knew this would be something to be talked about for years to come. We also spent time decorating one the smaller homes to add some colour to the otherwise blank walls which the residents look upon every day. We provided new plants for the big yard to add some more colour and left behind plenty of games and activities to provide stimulation.
A long bus ride across Bulgaria took us to Sofia where we spent the second week of our trip helping in two small group homes for children. These homes are well decorated, clean, have plenty of toys and equipment and so on the surface appear to be the perfect home for the 6-7 children living in each. However the lack of funding means that there is only one carer working at any time and she is responsible for cleaning, cooking, changing, feeding, washing for all the children.
In one home the children have multiple disabilities and the carer is physically unable on her own to provide any sort of stimulation for them so they often remain on beds or in wheelchairs. In the other home the children have so much energy but the carer never has time to play so her job merely consists of crowd control. Having three extra pairs of hands meant that we were able to take the children outside, go to the local parks, for walks, buy special treats like ice cream, play lots of games, make music and lots of fun! It’s such a relief for the carers who work so hard but are unable to ever enjoy the children’s smiles.
Because of a very kind donation, Paul was able to buy a guitar and some instruments which lead to a lot of fun singing and making music. We are quite used to getting a lot of attention when we take the children out of the homes as Bulgarians are often unaware that these children are living near to them. During our time in Sofia it was great to see some signs that maybe people are becoming more informed and accepting about the people hidden in these institutions. On one occasion a shopkeeper saw us passing with the children and rushed out to give us his whole supply of cherries to take back to the home. Another time a restaurant owner provided us with toys for the children. Hopefully attitudes in Bulgaria continue to change so that eventually it is recognised that these children and adults deserve a better life.
This trip was also the first time we met Ralitsa, the young Bulgarian who Holding Out Hope have employed since January to work with the children in Sofia. It was incredible to see the difference she is making to the children’s daily lives providing them with stimulation, new experiences, love and care. It is so valuable to have someone who can be a consistent positive presence in their lives rather than simply having volunteers help for a week at a time.
For anyone who is interested I will be writing more about her work in another post. I must say a massive thank you to everyone who so kindly supported our trip, has fundraised for the charity and those who continue to donate so generously. Thank you, thank you, thank you. We were able to provide countless smiles and 2 weeks of joy which otherwise would not have been found in these institutions.
Both Paul and Vesela are planning to also write about their experiences, so keep your eyes open for links to their blogs.