Monday, April 26, 2010

A Look at Special Education in Bulgaria

The education of children with special needs in Bulgaria is in its infancy. Like so many things here, you can compare it to the United States about 50 years ago. Traditionally any child with a physical or mental handicap has been institutionalized and like many of our institutions in the 60’s and 70’s, they have been pretty deplorable.

There are no children in the schools here with physical limitations with the possible exception of deafness, or blindness. There is a school for the deaf near my school, but you will not find these students in a regular classroom. I know of a very bright high school student who is blind and attends one of the better Plovdiv high schools and does very well. I know there are teachers in the municipality who work with special needs students, but it is usually for a minimal time per month, and rarely in the school setting. Mitko is a first grader, who on the very first day of school I picked out of the crowd as someone who was probably ADHD. He has an engaging smile and is always eager to greet anyone he meets, but he quickly demonstrated the confines of school were challenging for him. I believe by Christmas he was no longer coming to school. The explanation was that he was seeing a resource teacher. On a few occasions following that I did see a man who visits the school periodically try to work with Mitko in the library. Mitko was having his way, dictating the terms of engagement, and I have not seen them working together since. I don’t know what has happened to Mitko, whether he is attending a different school, is receiving a few hours of education a week from the “specialist” at home, or has just fallen through the cracks. Whatever it is, it is not enough.

On Friday of this week, I visited a friend whose assignment here in BG is to work with the special needs population. She works in two settings, an orphanage and a day care center for disabled students. I spent about three hours at the orphanage and two at the center with her. They were very different, and rightly so. Though they both serve a special needs population, their directives are very different.

The orphanage is just that on one level. There were healthy children who are orphans or whose parents can not care for them for whatever reason, but do not want to give them up to the state permanently. The families may have contact with the child, while others are put up for adoption. The second group is the severely physically or mentally handicapped. As difficult as it was to see some of these children lying in their cribs, often with contorted emaciated bodies, and to be acutely aware of the quiet due to lack of verbalization, you can see that efforts are being made to change the way things are done in Bulgaria regarding these children. The facility I visited was a “campus” of three buildings, a lot of outdoor space in an enclosed compound on the far edge of a village outside a larger city. It was very clean, bright, and well staffed with both professionals and “helpers”. The children were clean, well dressed, and noticeably missing was the “institutional” smell, as we traveled from one room to another. It is clear, however, the caregivers think of their jobs as just that…”caregivers”. I could not help but think of the complaints I used to mentally lodge against the nursing homes where both Mike’s and my mothers lived out the end of their lives. Attendants would care for the physical needs of their charges, but attempts at engaging them seemed minimal. Perhaps it is a necessary outcome of institutional care.

The orphanage does have a “baba” program, which pairs some of the children with a “baba” (grandmother) for several hours a day. They have their own playroom and are encouraged to interact physically with the children, engage them in play and in general stimulate them. For some “babas” it is an opportunity to chat with their friends, but to their credit, they were always holding a child when they did. These children may not be getting the directed intervention US educators would like to see, but they were getting more than those who did not have a “baba”. The “baba” culture here in BG (as in so many places including the US) is to “do for the child”, so independence is not encouraged, though many of the kids are capable of independence with directed skill building.

There is also a special wing of one building which houses a “day care center”. The group is small and most of the children who attend the day care program are actually residents of the orphanage. The funding for the creation of the center was from an EU grant or program, thus relatively new. It is currently under the budget of the orphanage. There is a different staff for this program and there was a more interactive environment here. It was closer to a special needs classroom in the states, but the intention to teach was not as strong.

The frustrations experienced by my friend revolve around knowing what can be done with these children, but working with people who can be openly hostile about change and the possibility that it could be different. Even the professionals….doctors and psychologist are not supportive. Some practices are so contrary to those of the U.S. it is extremely difficult to not get upset when seeing them. For example, in two of the buildings there were bedrooms with the most physically disabled kids who generally spend 22 hours a day in their cribs. We went into both of these rooms and there was not a staff member present. Perhaps the kids are checked on periodically, but there is not a constant vigil. They are also tucked furthest away from any activity, making it less likely someone will just “pop” in to see or talk to them. There was not music or radio to fill the space, and rarely was there anything on their cribs to look at. This seemed worse than solitary confinement in prison. Many of these children’s deformities have worsened because of being in these cribs for such prolonged periods of time. There is no muscle on their bones. Stripped they would look like the ads of the children in a campaign against starvation. Some have lived their fifteen years of life like this. We entered playrooms to find eight children on the floor unsupervised or with an adult sitting on a couch disengaged from the kids. Again, no music, no attempts to encourage language, very little physical contact. It was explained to me that children with epilepsy are the worst off because it is believed that if you touch them it will cause a seizure. They most often are the ones in the cribs.

The high point of my visit was to get a little guy sitting in a foam padded play space to giggle out loud. Just some tickling, talking, and floor play had him laughing. I had seen this child earlier in the day care and he was so serious and afraid. The care taker in the room where I played with him was sitting on a nearby seat just watching. The power of suggestion can be a strong one. I hope it left a mark here.

After three hours, we headed back to the city, took a lunch break and walked the 25 minutes to the day care center. Whereas there are about 80 residents at the orphanage, the center serves the needs of about 40 children. It is chartered to serve students 3-18 years. Some come for the whole day, others following a half day in the public school and still others just for services such as speech therapy. Again the facility was bright and clean, with plenty of space. The kids were divided between two floors or activity areas. The staff here was engaging and excited about the PCV’s work. Within the last six weeks she had had a major breakthrough with an autistic child she started a behavioral program with. I watched the videos the center recorded of her work and was so excited myself about the changes in this little boy in six weeks. No one believed it possible, but it is difficult to argue with reality. The videos will be a wonderful tool to use in discussions with the psychologist and doctor who were sure nothing could be done for this child.

In the back of my head since I arrived has been the thought that I would like to work in some way in an orphanage. Plovdiv has about five of them, though I have not been able to locate them. This summer will be the perfect time to get started. Even if I am simply a “baba”, I may be able to model and encourage some “new and unusual” ways of interacting with these special needs children. It is a challenge to be patient when there is so much work to be done.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Easter and the Black Sea

View of "Old Town and the fortress

Easter and the Black Sea

My spring break was a full 11 days long. This was a bit unusual because it combined the school break with the four day Easter weekend. The weather was not great, but it provided time to just decompress. I think as the days and tasks of living in a foreign country, working in an environment fundamentally different from one’s life experience and still “only getting by” with the language blend together, we loose track of the little stressors that do add up. As I spent hours just enjoying a novel and staring at the sea I could feel the tensions evaporating.

Mike had the four day weekend off, so we planned a trip to the Black Sea, “a must see” area of Bulgaria. We chose to stay in a small historical town, Sozopol, just south of Borgas one of the two large cities on the coast. It was absolutely wonderful.

The five hour train ride from Plovdiv to Borgas, like most train rides in Bulgaria was a visual delight. The deep rich earth of the freshly plowed fields contrasted with the adjacent bright green fields of winter wheat. The rolling hills were topped off with pom-poms of blossoming apple trees, and carpets of yellow wild flowers and forsythia carpeted the edges of the tracks. In the distance on both sides were the protective walls of the mountains. It is a mystery how and when the fields are turned as there are no farm houses every mile or two surrounded by colorful equipment, standing ready.  Great distances would pass between the tiny villages struggling to survive while its residents live a life of decades past. 

 Cobblestoned streets and wooden Revival style homes.

Sozopol a thirty minute bus ride south of Borgas sits on the tip of a peninsula, jutting into the Black Sea. The tip forks and to the left is “the old town” and to the right is “new town”. The bus dropped us off on the isthmus connecting the two. Waiting were eager residents offering rooms in their homes. We agreed to take a look at one place offered by a cab driver who lived in the center of old town with his family. No pressure, just look and if we didn’t like it …that would be OK. Because his home was in “old town” we agreed to look.  Old town is less than a mile wide and maybe two long, but packed into that space is a labyrinth of tiny cobbled streets with many houses from Bulgaria’s 19th century Revival Period. They have a distinct architectural style with a stone lower level and wooden upper level. Some of these old homes had the original wood siding and others had been beautifully and carefully restored. With stories and history lessons as we made our way the short distance through town we arrived at the guest house and were shown around. We decided to stay. Ramon then dropped us off at a restaurant on the sea for lunch. 

                                                                       LUNCH: The top balcony was a single table for two!  

We had a private little space with just one table for two overlooking the sea and facing a few small islands. We spent the rest of the afternoon just walking and exploring, catching it all in pictures before returning to our very typical Bulgarian guest room. While exploring we had checked out open restaurants and decided on one specializing in fish near the small harbor for dinner. We were the only diners sitting on what in season would be the           outside patio, heated by a propane heater. With only one table to serve, the service exceeded the Bulgarian norm, when there is often one waitperson for the whole restaurant!

Saturday Morning had us out early with the intention of moving to a new location. There wasn’t anything in particular wrong with where we were, but with the sea within sight from so many places, and my soul longing to be reenergized by it, I really wanted to move.

We found a small hotel with a dining room, hanging on the cliff’s edge close the tip of the peninsula. It was perfect, with a corner couch in front of a large picture window with the bay and sea as the backdrop. Walks to “new town”, further exploration of the “old town” more picture taking and hours reading between visits to the dining room filled the rest of our stay.

On Saturday evening we joined residents and visitors outside the church for an Easter Vigil service. Our cab driver had told us about it so we had some understanding of what should happen. Throughout the day people were seen emerging from the church with tall thin candles, some with just a few, and others with handfuls of them. At the vigil, votive candles were brought forth from the church and circulated so all could light their own. For such a little place, the crowd felt large.  Eventually Mike could see a cross bearer exit the church and make his way to the front of the crowd. The procession moved slowly, everyone trying to keep their candle lit. We later learned, the goal was to return home with the lit candle, to bring good fortune and blessings upon one’s home and family throughout the year. We made it back to the hotel with our candles still lit! Not sure if that counts, but we considered ourselves “successful”. What we could not see and did not experience was the tradition of walking around the church three times with the lit candles and the return to church for a service. Only a few devotees participated in these rituals.

The tone of the weekend changed drastically late Sunday afternoon when we left Sozopol behind and visited a fellow B25 in Borgas. Chris lives on the top floor of a Communist block with a view of the Romi/Turkish mahala where he works just below him.

As is always the case, the mahala was quite separate from the city proper. He has done a great job integrating into his “work community” shopping at their little stores, visiting their cafes and in general living with them. He, and as an extension, Mike and I were invited to dinner by a friend of Chris’, a Romi and his family. We were picked up and after checking with us that we felt comfortable going into the mahala, we were off to dinner. The Romi and Turks have their own prejudicial attitudes toward each other, but are often forced into living with each other. This particular mahala has invisible boundaries with Romi or Turkish sections and streets. In general the Romi are poorer than the Turks, and thus live in the worst part of the mahala. So off to the very back corner we went. There certainly was a sense of familiarity about it, as it became more and more difficult to navigate through the people that have no other outdoor space to go to other than the unpaved, rutted streets. Abandoned scrap cars are playscapes for children, and crates, metal scraps or “whatever” are benches for watching the world go by!.

Our host had a lovely family, two sons in the primary grades and the youngest a girl of kindergarten age. Their home had three rooms, with the “living room” doubling as the parents’ bedroom. The edge of the bed provided some seating and an assortment of other sitting stools were arranged around the table lower in height than our norm. Salads and a lamb and rice dish were the main course. Two additional roasted legs of lamb were also offered.  People seemed to come and go throughout the meal: a son sent off to buy juice, a sister–in-law- stopping by to bring news of a funeral in another part of the country the next day, and a mother to meet the Americans.  With antennae up, one tries to be sensitive to the work and effort that went into the meal, while watching to see how much everyone else is eating, knowing what an expense this was for the family. Trying to balance being appreciative while calculating how much to leave behind on the serving platters for future meals is never easy. I have no idea how we did. The special homemade Easter cookies were brought out which we know from our “cultural lessons” takes a lot of time and effort to prepare. Most Bulgarians now buy these Easter cookies. They were sweet with a hint of lemon. Without time to clean up, we rushed off to church.

This young couple (in their early 30s) are members of one of the Evangelical Churches that are taking root in the mahalas. There were about two hundred people of all ages in attendance. As guests we were quickly whisked to front row seats and asked to introduce ourselves at the beginning of the service. The building was a plain hall decorated with construction paper signs and artificial flowers. An electric keyboard was prominent front and center. The children opened the program with song and sayings, led by a woman that had “teacher” qualities about her. Their ages were from about 4 to 14. I was impressed as they sang a number of songs from memory and with heart. So often we hear that the Romi “don’t understand the Bulgarian language”. These children were clearly not having a problem with it as they sang and recited prayers all in Bulgarian. The children were well behaved. They were quiet and respectful, coming and going during the 2 ½ hour service. The women offered praise through song next, followed by a small group of four or five young men. I had the feeling there was something special and different about these young men from most in the mahala. Mike and Chris were brought up front to join the men. Mike’s uncertainty of what was to come next was evident on his face as Chris was asked to say a few words (in Bulgarain). Mike was spared and the singing began. With all the musical praise completed, the preacher took the podium. We could identify the general gist of the sermon, but always became anxious when reference was made to us. At the end, we were greeted by most members of the congregation with warm hearts and kind smiles. Certainly a different Easter, but not without spiritual significance.


Monday, April 12, 2010

I Want His Job!!!!

I Want His Job!!!

Many of you know Lynn and I enjoy traveling on the trains. We are not really sure why, but it must be because we can get up and walk around, and look out of the windows, and watch Bulgaria slip by. Of course there are the times when the trains will just stop in the middle of no-where, and we are told the engine is not working. After 30 minutes, we are off again. We are never sure what happened, but are glad to be moving again. Heat on the trains is another issue. It is either 95 degrees, or not turned on at all. On a recent trip on a warm spring day, it was so hot in the train car, that almost all of the riders had fallen asleep. It almost looked like some “poison” gas had been leaked into the train - - but it was just the heat combined with the rocking of the train car as it went through the mountains.

The trains in Bulgaria are either very old, or brand new and modern. The modern trains look like “bullet train wan-a-be’s”. You imagine the new ones could travel along at 100 mph. But, alas, they don’t go any faster than the very old trains. (Speed is based on the track technology – not on the age of the train.) There are many more of the old trains than the new ones. Although they have a first class and second class cars there is not much difference between them, and the heat problem does not make any class distinction.

One of the nice things about taking the train is that you get to see Bulgaria from where the tracks go, and not looking out of a car (or bus) window. The train rides through the Bulgarian mountains are really beautiful. There are narrow “alleys” carved though the rock, and then you quickly enter total darkness of a long tunnel, coming out into the bright sunlight and another spectacular view. All along these routes there are very small villages with little train stations. They are generally run by the station manager.
Although, if many of you are thinking about the way transportation systems work in the US, you probably need to “re-adjust” your thinking when you are in Bulgaria. Every station has a least one cashier window. You can NOT purchase tickets one day early. In fact, you can often not purchase tickets until about 30 minutes before the train arrives. If you are getting a ticket on an “express train” (this is generally an oxymoron), they will assign seat numbers to you. The ticket agent will pull over a sheet of paper with all the seats in a car marked. They draw an X through a number, and hand write the seat number on your computer-printed ticket. I have yet to figure out how this system really works. I’m always expecting to find someone in my seat. However, except for the first time we used the train and did not realize the numbers meant something and sat in the wrong place, we have never found anyone in our seats.
The village station manager job is very similar – from a manual process perspective. The station manager is the one person who is the cashier, ticket taker, platform sweeper, and he tells the train when everyone is out of the station and on the train. The train can only continue on when he raises “the Green flag”. In the US, we would have electronic communications, head sets, and microphones so the “all-important” station manager can easily talk to the conductors and engineers. But Bulgarians would ask why you need all those gadgets when a simple hand stick with a green (or red) circle will work just as well.
Each station manager does the same thing. When the train is pulling in, they are on the platform in their uniform standing almost at attention. When the train stops, they turn and enter the station to check (or maybe announce) the train has arrived and everyone should be boarding. Then he comes back out, and looks up and down the platform checking to be sure everyone is on the train. At this point the job of station manager gets creative. Most station managers will bend their elbow at 90 degrees and twist their wrist so the green flag stick is pointed up. But there are other station managers who will stick their arm out straight from the shoulder, and cock their wrist so the flag stick is up. (This is similar to the roman emperors giving a thumbs-up during a gladiator event.) Then, there are a few more aggressive managers who flamboyantly stick their arm straight up with their flag stick held high for all to see similar to the black pride symbol during the sixties. As the train departs from the station, they lower their stick, turn abruptly, and walk back into the station to wait for the next train to arrive - - when they can repeat the process - - over and over and over again.

When I grow up, I think I want to be a Bulgarian Station Manager!