Thursday, July 29, 2010


Not everyone in Bulgaria would agree with me, but every weekday when I see the Romi street cleaners keeping every part of this city clean for its citizens and guests I think what amazing women they are.

I first saw them in our training village of Varshets. I thought at the time it was unique to that town and a great way to provide employment. It was summer, there was always some litter on the sidewalks, but more often there were nature’ droppings…….seed pods, leaves, flower pedals or fruit that if left unattended, made the area “grungy”. Most fascinating when I first saw them were their brooms. Tied onto the end of a wooden pole (or sometimes a stick) was a thicket of shrub branches, easily replaced when worn and always available. Most important they were FREE. Scattered throughout town, these ladies methodically swept not only the sidewalks but the street gutters as well!

I was a bit surprised when we moved to the big city and once again saw the Romi street cleaners. During the fall they were responsible for “raking” the leaves not only on the streets and sidewalks but also from under the shrubs in the parks and along the street medians. For weeks on end they fought what seemed like a loosing battle, but Mother Nature finally gave up having shed the last of her foliage, and they were victorious.

With the leaves all swept away, I wondered if they would continue to work through the winter. Absolutely! They continued with the daily cleaning of sidewalks but as the weather worsened and the snow made its appearance and the ice started forming, they took on new responsibilities. Outfitted with flat wooden shovels and bags of sand they now cleared the sidewalks or chipped away at the ice at the bus stops, making it safer and easier for all of us hurrying to work or tending to our needs.

With the threat of snow past for another year, came the spring clean-up. All the sand they had carefully spread throughout the winter now lay heaped in the gutters, or filled sidewalk crevices. Very methodically they swept and bagged it all, swept the garden lawns and prepared the city for another rebirth.

I love walking this city, but I particularly enjoy it when the Romi street cleaners have preceded me. They are what keep the city from looking like a dump as many of its residents do not think twice about littering. If they were ever to “strike” the city would look quite different in just a week’s time.

Just like a child who's attention is heightened with the musical call of the ice cream truck on hot summer days, my ears perk when I hear the "swish, swish" of the tree branch brooms. I know the ladies are close by.

So to you ladies, I extend a smile, a greeting and my heartfelt appreciation for the amazing job you do!!!!!!!!!!!!


Saturday, July 17, 2010


There are a number of ideas that Peace Corps pounds into our heads right from the get go. One of them is the idea of SUSTAINBILITY in terms of skill transfer and projects. It has been a problem for Peace Corps from its inception. It is all grand and good for the Americans to come into a country with ideas, energy, optimism, idealism, resources and so much more, but it is another thing for our work to continue long after we are gone. There are “Volunteer Monuments” all across the globe…libraries that are unused, computer labs without technicians to maintain them, gyms that are locked and so on. Obviously there are many successful projects and significant skill transfer resulting from volunteer efforts, but it is still a hole into which many of us fall.

With this in mind I did NOT want to do the summer camp I was asked by my school director to organize with my counterpart. The reason being, that a PCV had done such a camp three years ago and it had not been repeated since. Where was the SUSTAINABILITY?  Running a camp also meant finding funding….never a fun thing to do in my minds’ eye. Some people are good at it. Let’s just say it has always been one of those organization jobs I have always avoided carefully. The last road block was a shortage of time. In true Bulgarian fashion we were not asked to start working on this until after Easter break…basically the middle of April.

With no choice but to move forward I decided to try and make it worthwhile. Actually like so many projects it started with a loose framework and flushed out as we went. The first thing to do was understand how the previous camp had been run and why it had not been repeated.  After hearing about it the two key elements that I thought needed changing were the number of kids involved in the camp and a change in staff. Previously PCV were brought in from the neighboring region to engage the kids in games and crafts. As stated by Petya, they camp did not continue because there were no PCVs. I hoped to go from 40 campers to 120 and from PCV running the camp to teachers implementing the activities. (We reached 95 students and 7 teachers worked the camp) We decided a theme would add more meaning to the activites for the week and started under the larger umbrella of “environment” and narrowed it to “litter” a major problem in the mahala.  Internet searches, books etc offered many ideas for games and projects and the camp started taking form. Writing the proposal resulted in defining goals for the students and teachers as well. There were still approval and funding hoops to negotiate (some done by Mike while I was in the US) but at last we got the go ahead and the funding just in time.

Now that the camp is behind me I can say with great pleasure that it exceeded my expectations in so many ways. I never doubted that the children would enjoy it, but I did not anticipate they would enjoy it so much. The satisfaction reaches beyond the children though, to the teachers who implemented the camp as well as other on-lookers including Roma security and custodial staff. Not only were the activities new for the children, but the idea of learning through games and fun was as well. To have the adults recognize the value in this was what energized me. It was seeing kids who struggle everyday in school with behavior because they are learning disabled, fully engaged, having fun and being successful that made all the work worthwhile. It was seeing the teachers work in teams, negotiating the dynamics of leadership and support, offering their own suggestions and having them implemented that reflected signs of change, and it was seeing the kids working in pairs, small groups and larger teams successfully that convinced me they are capable of whatever is expected of them.  The camp was not without flaws and not as successful as we would have liked if measured by the “indicators of success” required by the project funders, but from my point of view it was wildly successful. Will the lessons learned by the students be evident in September? Perhaps, if we reinforce them with a school wide “anti-littering” campaign.  Is it sustainable?  I’m not sure, but it has a better chance than the last camp because it was completed by them, not for them, and with another year to practice the skills learned at this years camp … just might continue beyond my service.




Friday, July 2, 2010

Bright Lights!

A few weeks ago, while standing at the bus stop, I noticed a man painting the light posts. He was working only on the lower part.....whatever he could reach without a ladder. I was impressed that the rusty light post had been primed. He was painting it a metallic blue.....looked nice....wonderful improvement. I looked to my right and noticed that the poles on my side of the street and the center median had also recently received the same attention. The sentinels on the other side of the street were still wearing their rusty red uniforms.  It lifted my spirits to think one of the indicators of a neglected infrastructure was being addressed. But how wide spread would this phenomena be? The 30 minute bus ride was spent scanning the city streets, looking for other blue metallic light poles. hey came and went as I traveled through different neighborhoods.

During the ensuing weeks I have watched the various stages of work being done, and felt sorry for the man who was prepping the poles. He was sanding them by hand with a fold of sandpaper (could it possibly be 3M paper?). My heart went out to him, knowing that once again in Bulgaria the tools of work never seem to match the size of the job. I can't imagine in the states that the removal of over 20 years of rust on a whole city's network of light poles would be tackled by an individual with sandpaper!!!

As I travel around the city my eye is continually drawn to the light poles and the difference they make in the overall appearance of the area. I wonder how many other people have noticed. To me it changes the mood of the street.  I believe that by summer's end, the whole city will be brightened (we'll see about Stolipinovo) by freshly painted light poles. Is it too much to hope, that there is a plan to do something with the bus stops as well!!!!