Long ago (OK, so it was 1995) in a land far, far away (fine, fine, in Romania) a fantastic female revolution began. It started with a few significant community observations.
There was a lack of female leaders. Women were working outside the home, but still tied to their traditional tasks of cooking, cleaning and child-rearing. Female students seemed to lack initiative.
So seven heroines (three volunteers and four teachers) decided to act, thus becoming the very role models missing from this kingdom and sweeping 80 fair maidens into the mountains for a special retreat. Now, this spirited effort to address the needs of young women profoundly changes the lives of hundreds of individuals every year, from Macedonia to Malawi. Unfolding like a modern and most awesome fairy tale, but one with many happy endings and not a villain in sight, the story of GLOW glows.
Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) first took place in Bulgaria in 2000, thanks to a few Peace Corps volunteers and the Open Door Resource Centre in Veliko Tarnovo, whose mission is to provide encouragement, entrepreneurial support, life skills and technology training to Bulgarian women. Thanks to their organisation, creativity and research, a weeklong educational and emotional extravaganza, which boasts topics well beyond leadership, was born. GLOW now aims to foster self-esteem; develop teamwork, communication, decision-making, and goalsetting skills; encourage civic responsibility and volunteerism; nurture tolerance and promote appreciation of culture and diversity and expand knowledge of current issues facing young Bulgarian women, such as HIV prevention, people trafficking, and eating disorders.
But there's obviously a bigger reason why last year 250 young women, aged 14-18, wrote essays, completed forms and then (50 of them) found the 75 leva entrance fee to attend this week of wonder. How does GLOW reach these girls? Who is making such a difference in their lives? What's their secret?
Engagement and experience, to start with. Campers learn by doing and that makes a big difference. They listen to a lecture on Bulgarian women in business and then gather to discuss their opinions and inspirations. Tae-bo, meditation, yoga and self-defence classes keep them awake and alert. A talent show encourages creative expression in a supportive setting. Eco-trail hiking provides environmental education. There are pyjama parties, Hawaiian luaus and bonfire nights, which expertly intertwine bonding, self-discovery and uplift.
However, for long-term change, a project's foundation must include sustainability, and leadership, especially for a group of young girls, must be trustworthy. That's where GLOW flexes its strategic muscles. While volunteers and local partners stay behind the scenes, 20 counsellors and junior counsellors, all Bulgarian and each a previous GLOW camp attendee, are required to stage community fundraisers for their 50 leva entrance fee, then undergo an intensive three-day training session on peer counselling, mediation, communication, and workshop facilitation. They are the unflagging life, energy, and spirit of GLOW. In consequence, this camp is becoming a Bulgarian tradition, moulding local leaders for tomorrow.
Then there are those little touches that make GLOW sparkle, like the inspirational quotes posted all over the training facility (glitter pens are a line item on the budget). There are mailboxes where campers are encouraged to leave positive notes for new friends, and the exchange of friendship bracelets.
Jennifer Hee, a Peace Corps volunteer who helped organise one of the camps, and has extended her service for a third year, is taken aback when I ask her what single thing makes GLOW work. “The magic really just happens on its own,” she says with a grin.
If only the money appeared thanks to such simple abracadabra. Initially, GLOW organisers went about funding the traditional way, via community fundraisers, small grants and appeals to Sofia's expatriate community, including the International Women's Club, who contributed to Camp GLOW. Private donors, such as Sol Polanski, former US Ambassador to Bulgaria, have also been instrumental. But every year the budget grows. And every spring, more applications pour in. Because GLOW takes care of the girls' transport, lodging and food, in addition to counsellor training and operative costs, and because they can't increase the camper fee without creating restrictive socio-economic divisions, organisers have sought more modern strategies.
Anna Hopf, 27, a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Vratsa, who helped fundraise for Camp GLOW 2005, said she knew that online donations were essential to their success. “Last year, for the first time, individuals could sponsor a camper for $175 via www.camp-glow.bg,” she says. “We raised over $4,000, which was 33 percent of our operating costs.”
This is only the beginning of new and improved funding methods. GLOW leaders are hopeful that private Bulgarian firms will soon stop idling, shift towards social responsibility, and consider long-term GLOW sponsorship, including not only monetary contributions, but more hands-on action like provision of guest speakers and employee volunteering. They feel that funding Camp GLOW would demonstrate a firm's commitment to increasing female leadership, and be a sound investment in the future of Bulgaria, something almost any private business would be happy to boast of.
Anna also tells me that most campers have no idea what they're getting into. “They figure it's a good way to practise English. But at the week's end, they're all in tears, saying goodbye and wishing it could go on forever.”
However, Teodora Kaleynska, executive director of the Open Door Resource Centre, which handles all Camp GLOW logistics, including site selection, camper travel, local partners, curriculum development, guest speakers and security issues, is quick to tell me it's not a language camp, but a leadership camp. She also speaks of the future of this, now fanatical, week of fun.
“We are looking at broadening our efforts to include the greater Balkan region. Then there are the campers,” says Teodora with pride, “who are creating their own National GLOW Network.”
*** To help a young Bulgarian woman discover her own kind of shine, contact Open Door Resource Centre at 06 260 3310
GLOW Girl Spotlight - Lily Mokova: Learning about Leadership
In the spring of 2004, Lily Mokova was a conscientious student getting ready to enter the American College of Sofia. She was about to live away from her parents for the first time. About this time, her English teacher told her about GLOW.
“I was impressed with the application process. I had to write an essay about Bulgaria, women and leadership, stuff I'd never really thought about before.”
At 14 years of age, Lily was one of the youngest campers that year. She admits it was hard at first, but was relieved and inspired by the end of her GLOW experience and says it was good training for the upcoming changes in her life.
In 2005, Lily went back for more. This time, she applied to be a junior counsellor and was paired with counsellor Kate, a mentor who helped Lily prepare for her role. That summer changed Lily's idea of leadership.
“Before, I thought a leader was just someone interested in power and money. But I learned that leaders help people. As a junior counsellor, I was a leader!” she says with a laugh. “Good leaders work hard and motivate others to do their best.”
When she was about to enter ACS, Lily assumed she would study abroad and eventually live in the United States. After GLOW, she's not so sure. “I would hate to leave Bulgaria behind. There is a lot of potential here and I want to be part of the change.”
GLOW Girls' Voices:
Be a woman, be yourself
Camp GLOW Motto
“Every girl in Bulgaria is at least a little ambitious and has goals for her future. But, in Bulgaria, if we young women don't work to make ourselves leaders, no one will help us. Fortunately, a couple of years ago, some nice people decided to organise Camp GLOW and they saw what talented young women we are! I remember wanting the feeling that GLOW gave me to last as long as possible.”
“I think more camps like GLOW are needed, because everybody has the right to experience the most exciting and the most beneficial week of her life. Since Camp GLOW I have become better-organised. I make my decisions much more easily than before, I am a more self-confident leader, which is very important and useful for my post as a club president.”
Mirela Karadzhova, Burgas
“I am kind of a shy person, but GLOW changed me in a way I like. I learned from GLOW that I am a very meaningful person. But what is more important is that I learned every person is meaningful.”
Hristina Veleva, Velingrad GLOW Camper
“I think that this week at Camp GLOW has been a turning point in my life, and that the friendships and memories will stay forever in my heart. Thank you for giving me that chance.”
“Camp GLOW taught me to be more selfconfident, to have higher self-esteem and to be more open to other people in the world. GLOW opened my eyes to the world.”