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Service Learning in Bulgaria
Stuart Byfield, Assistant Principal of the Middle School & Elizabeth Meeks, Zug Library Team Leader

It has been an honour to be part of seven previous visits to Bulgaria continuing ISZL's longstanding relationship with our designated European charity, The Cedar Foundation. Cedar has been working in Bulgaria for over 15 years focusing on improving the lives of vulnerable children and young adults, many of whom were abandoned or orphaned and left in decaying and isolated institutions. Since 2011 over 120 ISZL students have spent time raising vital funding for projects such as a community playground, a multi-sensory room, sustainable gardens and sensory walkways. The notion of charity or service at times can be misplaced and there can be a danger that those of us from a more 'privileged' background provide what we think might be needed rather than what is actually needed. This year we changed our focus for support - having previously developed necessary projects we wanted to really address Cedar's key need - the replacement of vehicles required to transfer residents to school, work placements and important therapy or medical sessions. 

Our wonderful Grade 8 group worked across the year developing a wide variety of fundraising ideas and, with the PA supporting Cedar this year, we blew through the 10,000CHF target and reached an amazing final total of over 16,500CHF. In mid-May, thirteen of the group left Zug campus at some ridiculous hour in the morning as we headed once more to sunny Bulgaria. After landing in the capital, Sofia, the next stop was a 90-minute bus ride up into the hills south-west of the capital to visit the closed orphanage in the isolated village of Gorna Koznitsa. As the students toured with Cedar representatives, stories were shared of the procedures that were in place when it was open and the conditions the children faced on a daily basis. Those stories were so much more emotionally impactful as they were shared by a former worker at the orphanage who, we found out later, was back in the institution for the first time since its closure. Having experienced the horror of institutional life we then moved on to the group homes in central Kyustendil, the largest town in the area. This is where Cedar worked with local and national governments to build group homes within the community; bringing the former residents of Gorna into the public eye and offering opportunities to access much needed medical, physical and social therapy. Our students’ discussions around the dinner table that night reflected what an emotional rollercoaster the day had been. 

For the next two days, our group worked hard, renovating spaces inside and outside the group homes, sheltered houses and a day-care centre, knowing that their work was important but also secure in the knowledge that the main source of our funding will go to support the purchase of replacement vehicles. After three emotional days, farewells were said at a barbeque with the residents and staff of Cedar. All the thirteen who travelled experienced something unique and personal and have made their own connection to this special place tucked away in a provincial town in south-western Bulgaria. We are honoured to share in this, so very special, relationship with the Cedar Foundation. And like all strong, positive relationships, it is built over time with both parties gaining so much from the experience.

 

  • Middle School
  • Service Learning
  • Student Life

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