by Andrea Enright*; photography by Dragomir Ushev, Ilian Zinoviev, archives

The US Peace Corps takes Bulgaria head-on

US Peace Corps.jpg

While the phrase "Peace Corps" might conjure up images of sun-tanned Americans teaching English, purifying water, or planting corn with villagers, the Peace Corps has evolved since JFK's initial proposal nearly half a century ago. In addition to those assignments, volunteers now help build organisational capacity, write grant proposals, teach English, bridge technological gaps, encourage entrepreneurship and improve health care.

Peace Corps ideals, however, have held out. As volunteers, our job is to spread American goodwill, transfer skills, adapt to a different culture and expand both our own world and those of the people around us. Every year, in over 75 countries, Americans make a 27-month commitment to leave the comforts of home and embark on an adventure where the best advice we get is: erase all expectations. But rest assured that as people who make an average Bulgarian salary, aren't allowed to drive and struggle to break through the post-Communist dust of this Balkan country, we are not your typical expats. In mountain villages, Turkish-populated towns and forgotten fields across Bulgaria, the Peace Corps is doing good without corporate donations, charity galas or fundraising committee meetings. Just as the 1980s television campaign touted, this is still the "the toughest job you’ll ever love."

Lincoln Groves, 28, teaches English to 2nd, 3rd, 8th and 11th grade students at the only school in Sofia's largest Roma ghetto, a crowded neighbourhood of 30,000 with as many luxury cars as there are outdoor latrines. However, whether he's singing songs, playing games or enforcing discipline and study habits, the fact that he's a white guy walking into a sea of Roma every day is part of his challenge as well as his reward.

"Having grown up in white-bred, upstate New York, this experience allows me to gain insight into life as a member of an ethnic minority," says Lincoln. After graduating from Binghamton College with honours and leading his rugby team to a Division One Title at university, Lincoln worked as a data analyst for the US Department of Justice, and then "sold out" to the private sector as an economic consultant to help pay off his student loans. However, he says that while the money was better, the work was far from rewarding. Cautious about "succumbing to consumerism", he joined the Peace Corps.

"Where I used to measure success in billable hours, my new indicators are hugs and smiles. I hope these are evidence that I'm doing good work."

Lincoln Groves (centre, back) organised a summer camp for Roma children. Since many don't attend school on a regular basis he wanted to provide them with a positive learning experience

Lincoln Groves (centre, back) organised a summer camp for Roma children. Since many don't attend school on a regular basis he wanted to provide them with a positive learning experience

This past summer, Lincoln coordinated a weeklong day camp for 60 kids, aged three to 13 in the Roma neighbourhood. His goal, since the vast majority of the kids don't attend school on a regular basis, was to provide a positive summer experience and pass on songs, constructive activities and learning games. While prizes and toys were donated from a Mom's club in the United States, the crafts, paint, sports equipment and daily breakfast came from Lincoln's own personal funds. He says not a day passes without one of his students mentioning the camp.

Part of the beauty of the Peace Corp is the community of volunteers in each country. There are nearly 200 currently serving all over Bulgaria and they often combine forces to forge ahead. When volunteer Courtney Lobel, 22, heard about a successful healthcare project from a former PCV, she called her father, a Rotarian in Florida, and began recruiting a team. Now, volunteers from Burgas, Malko Tarnovo, Aytos and Topolovgrad are working with Project C.U.R.E and Rotary International to acquire and distribute containers of life-saving medical supplies to a home for the elderly, a clinic and five hospitals.

For every $20,000 raised, a container valued at nearly $400,000 will be shipped to equip facilities with routine health supplies as well as C.T. scanners, foetal monitors, surgical instruments and other machines for EKGs and ultrasounds.

Amy Dear-Ruel serves in Malko Tarnovo and has been instrumental in the project’s fundraising. But she sees the long-term benefits even more clearly. "We're not only improving Bulgarian healthcare, but building a partnership that we hope will last for years to come."

Rotarian Dr Jackson received a warm welcome in Bulgaria when he came to visit hospitals as part of the Project C.U.R.E

Rotarian Dr Jackson received a warm welcome in Bulgaria when he came to visit hospitals as part of the Project C.U.R.E

In August, Dr. James Jackson, the founder of Project C.U.R.E, visited each Bulgarian medical facility, speaking with hospital administrators and witnessing firsthand the dire need for such a project. Courtney, who served as translator, said it was amazing to see the reaction of the beneficiaries who, until that moment, didn't believe they would actually receive such a generous gift. Fundraising is still underway and to help, please visit and specify your donation for the Bulgarian Hospital Project.

David Elden, a former journalist from Georgia, is a part of the healthcare project as well, but back in Aytos he is assisting Bulgaria's ageing population, too. When the municipality asked him to help them acquire a solar water heating system for Dom za Stari Hora or Home for Elderly People, he applied for a Small Project Assistance grant, or SPA, which is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). With $5,000 from SPA and the rest from the municipality, Aytos is looking forward to the utility savings from this renewable energy source and the home's 30 residents are looking forward to hot water this winter.

Jack Stoebner, who serves with his wife, Ronda, volunteers at the Poda bird-watching centre in Burgas, which is managed by the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds, the BSPB. He is also implementing an SPA grant, which will help the centre create a new generation of BSPB members by first educating 15 students about habitat protection, birds and nature conservation during a series of excursions. The students, with the help of the BSPB senior staff and Eco Club, will then create a multimedia presentation to share with schools in surrounding areas.

Jack and Rhonda Stoebner at the Poda bird-watching centre in Burgas where Jack is educating the next generation of nature lovers

Jack and Rhonda Stoebner at the Poda bird-watching centre in Burgas where Jack is educating the next generation of nature lovers

While some volunteers add value through traditional development methods, others help Bulgarians earn money the old fashioned way – by borrowing. Greg Kelly works with the Regional Economic Development Centre, or REDC, in Sliven, eastern Bulgaria. They are affiliated to Kiva, an organisation which encourages generous individuals from around the world to provide low-interest loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries, empowering people to change their own lives.

For 15 years, Angel Asenov Isaev, a 29-year-old Roma in Sliven, worked in a bike repair shop in the centre of the town, struggling to save enough capital to start his own business. About eight months ago, he received an $850 collateral-free loan. Now, with his passion for biking, strong work ethic and Kiva's financial assistance, his shop is thriving.

After providing the loan, lenders, or groups of lenders, can watch the recipient's progress through an online journal and photo album. Then, in coordination with the beneficiary's business cycle, the loan is repaid through Kiva and the original lender can then choose to lend again to a different business. Kiva also ensures a transparent process to keep corruption at bay.

Since February 2006, through social networking, Greg has helped Kiva grant 18 loans worth nearly $18,000. Seventy-eight percent have gone to individual Roma and 44 percent to women.

A graduate of Georgetown University, Greg was an investment banker in San Francisco before joining the Peace Corps. He says the events of September 11th helped him better understand his identity and encouraged him to "give back". "I realised the growing importance of America's efforts abroad and I wanted to make a contribution."

Bulgaria may be one of the most developed countries which hosts Peace Corps volunteers, but these Americans have still managed to launch creative and sustainable programmes to serve Bulgaria's disadvantaged. We're trying to improve the Bulgarian quality of life, one blade of grass (roots effort) at a time. But the EU is coming, you say. Yes, we know. The aid organisations are leaving! Yes, we know. But that's not us. Along with our support for and initiation of programmes, camps and grants, the Peace Corps is about something else. Officially, it's called cultural exchange and integration. Informally, it's called making friends and building understanding. We like it here.

* Before she came to Bulgaria as an US Peace Corps volunteer, Andrea Enright lived in Denver, Colorado


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