2019 - Bulgaria

We are now just over a month into our Eastern Europe expedition and every day so far has been unpredictable, exciting, rewarding and, most of all, meaningful. This month we have worked with many more beneficiaries in a variety of spaces with a range of resources serving those with diverse, unique and important needs. In all locations we have been supported by Caritas and their committed group of Bulgarian staff, a team that we have happily observed, learned from and shared skills with.

Upon leaving Kosovo, we travelled overland to Bulgaria in our trusty van. This cross-border drive was in itself both a physical and mental journey for all. We were forced to work together in a very different way to that which we were used to; instead of our typical team planning, session delivery and daily chores, we now found that we had to support one another to manage directions and negotiate checkpoints over unfamiliar terrain and with limited language skills. Aside from the logistical challenges, as a team we had to overcome eating, sleeping, and ‘being’ together in very close quarters for long periods of unbroken time with little in the way of individual comforts. During this time, we gained more understanding of one another’s personal needs, giving each other the space required when necessary and strengthening that which connects us through discussion, debate, music and lots of laughter. A highlight of this trip came during our six-hour hold up at the Kosovo/Serbia border which ended in a group rendition of the Macarena and Cha Cha slide. We are sure that the crowd queuing with us loved it as much as we did!

For many of us our time in Bulgaria provided a first experience both to work on refugee camps with persons of concern, and also to deliver sessions specifically focused on persons with disabilities. Even for those of us who have worked with these groups before, we all improved our observation of, adaptation to and delivery of sport and development sessions where the inclusion aspect is of absolute importance.

One of our most successful and fulfilling experiences was spending time in Blagoveshtenie Social, Rehabilitation and Integration Centre for persons with disabilities. On one particular afternoon we gave total attention to ensure our parachute activity catered to the physical needs of our beneficiaries, many of whom had mobility issues, whilst also working on challenging each individual’s skills development, all the while focusing on providing a session full of fun. Careful planning, resource adaptation and clear, compassionate communication channels between our team meant, on this particular day, we delivered way above and beyond our expectations.

On a different note, an ambition we successfully set and achieved on the refugee camps we were invited to in Bulgaria was an aim to bring together people of all ages in activities which could bring joy and develop skills in a shared space. We found the community element, and sense of duty towards one another, on Harmanli, Voenna Rampa and Ovcha Kupel refugee centres to be incredibly strong and so our focus was to strengthen these cross-gender, culture and language bonds by providing low resource activities that could be continued on by these groups when we departed. Another positive we tried to imprint was the nurturing of compassionate leadership skills amongst the refugee youths by encouraging their take over of our sessions at points so that kids had the platform to develop and communicate their own rules and boundaries in a controlled space.

As a group of passionate individuals with big hearts, bright ideas and smiles that reach our eyes when we are delivering for those around us, we have all been on a rollercoaster of emotions this month. Speaking for the team, each of us has felt deliriously happy, overwhelmingly exhausted, somewhat lost, sometimes self-assured, frustrated, respected, ignored and empowered at different times. On some days we experience a ‘fruit basket’ of these emotions, on others we feel one more significantly than another. Ultimately, we are constantly working to be more understanding, more empathetic, more kind and caring of one another in the moment and also (vitally) of ourselves. As we continually push to do better, one of the biggest learning curves for us as a team is to talk through the different perspectives we have and also to accept when we do not hit the high standards we set.

Ultimately, giving everything we have to those that we serve is why we are here but this, in itself, is a big task which requires an abundance of resilience, strength, determination and the willingness to accept ideas be they different to our own. As we continue on our journey from Bulgaria to Romania, we know that we will continue to climb and hit new heights and, at the same time, we are more prepared for struggles that may come; in this way, this month has seen us grow wiser inwardly and outwardly.

By Kirsty Evans