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Bulgaria's Forgotten Schools: Petrevene village

I rarely watch television but that tends to happen when you don’t own a TV. This has its disadvantages of course, I could miss some meaningful or inspiring news at times but it’s a small price to pay for the blissful ignorance towards the elements of pop culture in Bulgaria. Television is a form of entertainment that I only enjoy when I go back home to visit my parents or around Christmas. It so happened that during a family afternoon my grandfather had the TV on while I was trying to study for an exam. The story from the TV screen caught my attention and it became increasingly difficult to focus on the notes about the Earth’s atmosphere. The story was about Petrevene, a village my family and I passed through every time we went to our villages. A village that had a forgotten school that was still alive. I gave myself a quiet promise that I would visit it as long as my journey took me there.

Less than a year later I am standing in front of the school door in Petrevene. For the first time I know exactly who I am looking for - Yordanka Velcheva, the lady from the news segment. I stop the first passerby I see and I ask her if she knows Yordanka. She points me to the nearest shop and the shop owner directs me to the pub. The pub owner points to three construction workers drinking beer outside. One of them used to work with Yordanka’s husband and gives me his phone number. And just like that, I have a meeting with her the next day. Only in little villages do I get this warm, cozy feeling when people run to your aid, no questions asked.

Yordanka arrives in a hurry to the school. It’s Sunday and she’s had guests over but she makes time in the afternoon for us. The school is in ruins like all the rest we have visited. Still it is different, it has life and purpose in it, or at least in three of its rooms thanks to Yordanka and a bunch of volunteers. We greet each other quickly on a cold November day and I can feel the warmth and kindness coming from her smile in contrast to the collapsing building in front of me. “Our school is in that state thanks to the prior mayor, who didn’t like the school headmaster because he had an untraditional and innovative approach to teaching. He was set on removing him from that position and when he couldn't do it, he decided to close the school altogether. Sadly, there are a lot of children in the village who could use it.” - Yordanka shares.

“My journey here began around a year and a half ago with my attempt to rebuild this school in a way suitable for children. We started working on a program aimed at preparing kids aged two to three for their experience in kindergarten. We don’t have a kindergarten or a school here, the children go to school by bus to the nearest town. Parents often worry about sending the little ones so far away for school. At first we were told by the people from the program that we have to secure a proper location and in turn they will provide the needed materials and toys. I thought to myself “Where? Where? The old school of course!” We suggested a room on the first floor but they told us that it was in such a bad state that renovation would be impossible. I was confident that if they agreed the space was big enough we could find a way to rebuild it. And that is how as we say in Bulgaria - a determined team can move mountains. The new mayor secured a small sum of money, the community center and Znanie association provided the rest, we renovated the space and soon started work with the children there. All of this became possible with very little, less than 1000 leva; come in and I’ll show you.”

What has been accomplished is truly impressive. Yordanka walks us through the colorful, tidy and decorated rooms and glances at them with affection. Everything is so bright and sunny, almost like her smile. “This is the first room we rebuilt. We started off with 20-30 children. Sometimes children that were older than kindergarten age would show up but we didn’t send anyone away. The toys were so pretty and new, something they had never seen before. They were very impressed.” I am impressed as well and at the same time have great respect for her devotion and efforts. Amidst the ruins she has achieved the impossible by creating something meaningful and nourishing. Even though there are only three, the colorful rooms welcome the children, encourage them towards play and spur their imagination, bring them joy and warmth and rise as a phoenix above the school’s ashes.

“My husband and I designed this paravan that we use for puppet shows. Here are the puppets we have sewn, they are the characters from three tales. Here we have one of the three little pigs, little red riding hood, the wolf, the grandmother, sleeping beauty, mice, cats, houses, trees. Every one of these is hand made.” As a teacher I am compelled to remember the hours of voluntary work I have put in my profession, fueled only by the children’s smiles, needing no other reward or recognition. I know that when she was making these puppets and decor she was thinking about the dozens of curious little eyes who would see the dance of the puppets for the first time. “Through association Znanie and Foundation for the children at risk around the world we invited a real puppet theater to visit. Later when I was reading them stories about the animals in the woods I realized that they have never seen a bear, a lion, a crocodile or any of the other animals in the stories. So I had a thought and a few days later we filled a bus with around 50 of our kids and we took them to the Lovech zoo.” I feel a bit dizzy when I think of how privileged I was as a child. Puppet shows, zoos, painting, colorful books, fairy tales - the elements of childhood that develop curiosity, creativity, imagination and inner world, and are yet inaccessible to thousands of children in Bulgaria. Who and why deprives children of them?

“When the pandemic hit we were told that we had to close the improvised kindergarten we had. We wondered where we could continue our work and decided to do it on the playground as it was outside. We would form a circle and go through our activities like that. Sometimes children would pass by outside and see how many kids were on the playground and ask “Can we join? Can we?” And once again I’d welcome them. Our groups were the biggest during that time, we had up to 50 kids at a time.” For everyone in the educational system the phrase ‘when the pandemic hitis filled with additional pain. The lack of perspective and clear goals is evident in every new order, new protective measure against Covid, every online class where you have to teach a small box with a letter and number on the screen, and ask the students over and over again “Hello, are you there? Can you hear me?” This feeling of pointlessness is brought on by the fact that children’s access to education holds less priority than access to bars, clubs and shopping malls. Hence, learning remotely during the pandemic has robbed the children from low socioeconomic background and minority groups of opportunities even more - especially considering that they don’t have equal access to education to begin with.

“This program was very well received by the children and parents. I even think that some of the parents had more fun than the kids. The parents have missed out on these moments in their own childhood, they have never had neither the colorful cubes, nor the pencils, crayons or sketchbooks. Last week we gave some of the parents jars of baby food that we received as a donation because they were close to their expiration date. Later on we built a small kitchen in order to provide food for all of the children in the center since not all of the parents could provide a meal. Some of the kids would come with homemade sandwiches and the others who were sent with nothing would just have to look at them. After we built the kitchen we started to give cooking classes to the parents about which foods are appropriate for kids and how to prepare them. I really want to make this place nice and accessible to lots of children since there are many in the village. Most of them are from minority groups and we have to do this for them since without kindergarten that prepares them for school, they wouldn’t have a chance”.

“During every mayor election I personally meet the candidates to ensure that our project would be continued. They always ask me ‘Why do you need this? What are you going to do with these funds?’ And I always tell them there are so many things to be done - a kindergarten, retirement home, library, a museum, sports center, there is always something. One of the mayors promised us that we would renovate the school to function as a community center. We made a project but it exceeded the planned cost. We were told that we can do this only if we remove the whole second floor of the school building and invest the funds into renovating the first floor. I thought this was absurd, that school was built with the voluntary labor of the village’s people a hundred years ago. It is in a bad state now but I am not the person to make the call and take the responsibility for destroying half of it. So now we are looking for other options and little by little, room by room, I am sure we will rebuild it again. We managed to renovate three rooms in a year and a half, so I figure in two to three years we will be ready. This on the other hand will change the lives of many children”.

“We have toys, I buy art materials from time to time, I print them images to color since they love it so much. Other than that, we need money to fix the roof since the second floor is not renovated and water is leaking to the rooms below. I have secured some money that probably won’t be enough but we have to at least stop the leakage because it will ruin everything we have accomplished so far.”

Yordanka and I say goodbye with promises to see each other again in spring and organize field trips for the children in Petrevene. The air is filled with hope as she tells me how last year she managed to organize a visit from Santa in each child’s home. This was the first time children saw Santa Claus as they had only seen him on TV and supermarket ads before. Some experiences and feelings have to exist in every human life.

The school in Petrevene has a chance to not be forgotten, thanks to the efforts and willpower of a single extraordinary woman. Every help would be essential and every kind of aid could contribute to the change. Even though slow, room by room, change is possible.

Contact: Yordanka Velcheva, 0878356267

Text: Elena Tatarova

Photos: Mariya Ivanova

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