06/01/2011 04:51 pm ET | Updated Aug 01, 2011

Bulgaria: Changing Orphans' Lives

Journal from the field #3, May 31, 2011
Dr. Aronson in Bulgaria, May 28-June 2, 2011

I arrived from Ethiopia in Sofia on May 28. Mark Beukema, Worldwide Orphans Foundation's (WWO) director of programs, and I have been traveling through the beautiful Bulgarian countryside to hold incredibly productive meetings with agencies and professionals involved in transforming the lives of orphans here.

Our meeting on Monday was with two fascinating and dedicated social innovators at the Child Protection Agency in Sofia. One, who has a doctorate in social work from Smith College, did her dissertation on the effects of institutionalization on children in Bulgaria. She was awesome and inspiring. Her focus on the individualization of the lives of orphans is stunning.

Her colleague is the project manager for the de-institutionalization program for Bulgarian orphans, beginning with the case management of the very disabled orphans in Bulgaria. They have already done the first level of developmental screening of the most complex children and now they will go deeper into the psycho-social and family issues of these children. Their goals are reuniting the children with their families, closing large institutions, group home assignments and foster care.

This strategic plan will then be used for the orphanages for healthy children. Most orphans in Bulgaria are Roma and much of the work will be about social change and culture shifts for the Roma community.

I am exuberant today because all of our meetings in Bulgaria have revealed that the BaBa (Granny) Program of WWO and Milossardie, our local partner here, is well-known and appreciated. In fact, the government officials understand that our early intervention efforts are very much a part of the future of de-institutionalization. They discussed the effectiveness of these programs and are eager to see them continue in other ways, i.e.:
• Grannies helping to transition children to their biological homes;
• Grannies teaching and supporting parenting skills;
• Grannies in group homes and even in foster care.

We were told that only two percent of the children in Bulgarian orphanages are full orphans. The vast majority have one or both parents living in extreme poverty. The children are "social orphans."

The Toy Libraries (now in six of the 10 orphanages we serve) are fascinating in Bulgaria and everywhere we travel. People in the government and local communities see them as exciting new ways to teach play and parenting. They understand they are a great way for staff to learn early childhood development theory and practice. They are an excellent way to help in the de-institutionalization programs all over the world.

Mark and I traveled to a very small town in Bulgaria on Sunday, where we heard about a wonderfully innovative program for very poor Roma children in Gostilitsa. Surrounded by the Stara Planina Mountains and the hills and valleys of the endless verdant countryside of Bulgaria, we visited a very old orphanage, but one that was very clean and filled with evidence of love and care. We also saw a 160-year-old community school building that, too, felt like a place of warmth and love. Fifty-six Roma children live in the orphanage five days a week and go home to their impoverished families in the town on the weekend. This daycare model is spreading and I feel that it is a very good transition as poor communities work hard to achieve economic strengthen while maintaining their families.

The poverty in Bulgaria is overwhelming. While we saw prosperity in Sofia, we also witnessed extreme poverty in the rural areas of this small country of 7 million people. They are the poorest in the European Union and life is very hard for most of the population.

Yet, in the midst of such poverty, there is hope for orphans. The government, NGOs and other charitable community-based organizations are supporting smart plans to help children in need.

WWO is very much a part of this arduous effort. I feel proud to be part of this essential struggle to provide these vulnerable children with medical care, education and developmental/psychological enrichment. I look forward to expanding our work in Bulgaria. We are ready to reach many more children and to expand our models. We are now serving over 800 children through our early intervention work, but even more important is that we can provide technical assistance.

Our models of early intervention are based on the principles of early childhood development and capacity-building in the community. Our training of staff, grannies, teachers and other professionals is appreciated and can help the country to be independent.

We are off to Varna to visit our newest Granny and Toy Library Program tomorrow. This is where I started my work in Bulgaria 13 years ago, when I came to Varna as a pediatrician consulting for another organization that wanted to start a Granny Program. That organization ran the program until six months ago, and now WWO has been invited to continue the program so that the children can have their Grannies.

The Director of Varna Orphanage was a daring and innovative leader 13 years ago when she initiated this program. Mark and I will have a chance to meet with her and talk about further work that we can do. She is a true hero to the children she has served all these years. I can't wait to see the sweet faces and watch the Grannies with their babies... the enthusiasm and enjoyment of the bonding between a Granny and a child is life-saving and sustaining.