This summer we spent two weeks volunteering in Gorna, as part of a trip with Imperial College Aid to the Balkans (ICAB). Gorna is a small, picturesque town in northern Bulgaria with just over 30,000 inhabitants. ICAB is a student-run charity that typically sends its volunteers to Bulgarian orphanages and other centres to work with children. To discourage abandonment of children, the government has more recently begun to set up day centres for disabled children. Our volunteer work was at one of such centres. At Gorna Day Centre, the children are separated into two groups by age. The younger children range from age 2 to 10. The older children are 10 and above. While working there we found that “disability” is a flexible term: there was a wide range, including cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, autism, and ADHD. Unlike many of the orphanages that ICAB works with, the Day Centre was well-equipped with toys, and even had a functioning playground. The staff, however, were untrained and unenthusiastic, so the children were often left to amuse themselves. The toys were left to collect dust on a tidy shelf, out of reach. This is where we stepped in. Our role was to organise activities for the children and provide them with much-needed care and attention. It was a challenge to overcome both the language and disability barriers. It was also difficult to tailor the activities to the children’s individual needs and abilities. We organised a music day with ukuleles, keyboards and several percussion instruments. They enjoyed it more than we thought they would, and kept asking us for the “guitarra” for days after. On another day we brought some clay to the centre: it was great fun encouraging the children to work on their manual dexterity through play and we even managed to learn the names for some animals in Bulgarian! When we were not working at the Day Centre we had time to explore the local town and nearby areas. It is a place where lovers of nature, history and culture can all be satisfied. On one of our days off, we decided to climb a nearby hill known as the Rock. Our hike began on a wide concrete path with a seemingly gentle incline. As we got closer to the top, it changed from a smooth concrete road to a steep and slippery dirt path. Indeed, it could barely be called a path. We only knew we were going the right way because it was up and because of the faded arrows spray-painted on the trees. When we finally reached the top we were soaked (Mother Nature had decided to bless us with rain), sweaty and muddy, but it was worth it. The view atop the Rock was breath-taking. We could see the surrounding countryside for miles around. It was a little bit dizzying, actually. No health and safety precautions here! We also visited Arbanasi, a pretty village with many historical buildings, mainly churches and monasteries. It’s also where Bulgaria’s rich and famous live (according to our travel guide, anyway). We’re not sure if we saw any Bulgarian celebrities, but we did see a coach belonging to FC Ariston, a local football team! The whole trip was impeccably organised and better than we could have imagined. Bulgaria is a place many people don’t normally consider and it isn’t somewhere you would often associate with volunteering. It is an unspoilt beauty and the children there are in real need of love, care and attention, which it was a privilege to provide. We would recommend it to anyone. It’s relatively inexpensive and, more importantly, it is an incredibly rewarding experience!
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