History of the Peace Corps in Bulgaria
In 1991, a year after peaceful public protest led to changes in Bulgaria’s political structure and direction, the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in Bulgaria to teach English at secondary schools and universities. The first group of economic development Volunteers arrived the following year. Environmental Volunteers started assignments throughout the country in September 1995, and in 2003, the youth development program (YD) was initiated. In 2004, the community and economic development (CED) and environmental programs were merged to create a community and organizational development program (COD), with the goal of providing a comprehensive approach to assisting with community development at the local level.
As of November 2006, almost 800 Volunteers have served in Bulgaria. Currently, 165 Volunteers are in-country; approximately half of them teach English as a foreign language (TEFL) in primary and secondary schools, the other half are in the COD and YD programs.
History and Future of Peace Corps Programming in Bulgaria
Since the late 1990s, Bulgaria has made exceptional progress in its transition to a decentralized, market-oriented economic system. Peace Corps has continually adapted and modified its programs to best serve the rapidly evolving needs of the people of Bulgaria and the communities it serves. As Bulgaria joins the EU, Peace Corps/Bulgaria is proud to be one of the first two Peace Corps programs to operate in an EU country. Bulgaria’s rapid development has exacerbated a host of socioeconomic problems, including a quickly growing development gap between cities and rural areas, high unemployment and poverty (particularly in more remote areas and among the elderly), youth disenfranchisement, degradation of educational institutions that have not adapted to the changing realities, separation of minority groups from mainstream society, and a limited understanding of a market economy and entrepreneurial skills. There is considerable opportunity for ongoing development work in Bulgaria, and Peace Corps/Bulgaria remains dedicated to best serving the needs of Bulgaria as an EU country.
TEFL Volunteers currently teach approximately 6,000 students. The need and desire for English language fluency has increased significantly, as Bulgaria joins the global community. English fluency can open a host of opportunities for Bulgarian youth. Volunteers also conduct extracurricular conversation courses and organize English language clubs. Bulgarian educators have reported extensive improvements in the English language fluency of students and a significant enhancement of Bulgarian English language teachers’ capabilities and teaching techniques as a result of their partnerships with TEFL Volunteers. Volunteers have taught computer literacy and Internet use to secondary school students, helped their schools obtain computers, and trained staff how to use them most effectively. Outreach projects help provide children from minority groups with an alternative atmosphere for learning and social development, and help raise these children’s confidence and self-esteem.
COD Volunteers assist in strengthening the organizational capacity of partner organizations at the local level. These Volunteers work with local and regional governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), economic development organizations, museums, and schools. They may help their organizations develop skills in community needs assessment and response, project initiation and implementation, grant writing, business administration and management, fundraising, environmental education and protection, and information and communication technology (ICT). COD Volunteers help regional and local governments foster transparency and public involvement in municipal affairs, address minority and NGO-sector issues, and promote community partnerships. Volunteers also work with local communities to enhance public knowledge of the environment and related issues, and to strengthen the public role in local decision-making. Volunteers may conduct environmental education courses and organize outdoor activities and field trips for students. Volunteers also help teach Junior Achievement, applied economics and business English courses, and organize business and community development training events.
Youth development Volunteers are assigned to youth NGOs, municipal children’s centers, youth clubs, schools, and orphanages/institutions for children who are homeless, at-risk, or have special needs. While Bulgarian youth are bright and curious about the rest of the world, many youth, particularly those in underserved and minority communities and institutions, lack the guidance and support to help them become contributing, responsible community members. Gangs of youth and use of illegal drugs are becoming more common, and HIV/AIDS is a growing problem. Volunteers work with their local partners and communities to help develop program and community support networks to support these youth, help them learn life-skills, and help them achieve their potential. Many YD Volunteers are particularly involved in summer camps that focus on leadership skills and appreciation for diversity.
All Peace Corps Volunteers in all programs in Bulgaria serve as community development workers, and get involved in a multitude of projects in their communities. Many Volunteers in all programs are involved with youth and with local sports. Most Volunteers not focused on English language education still take a very active role in helping community members improve their English language skills.
Almost all Bulgaria Peace Corps Volunteers are involved in helping youth learn decision-making skills and educating them about the risks of human trafficking. Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, robbing people all over the globe of their right to self-determination and legitimate work, as traffickers manipulate the innate desire for a better life into personal gain by luring people with limited opportunities into the sex trade and forced labor. Human trafficking is a growing problem in Bulgaria and in the region, and helping prevent it is a priority of the Bulgarian government. Peace Corps Volunteers are in a unique position to partner with and help strengthen local anti-trafficking organizations and to reach some of Bulgaria's most vulnerable citizens in their communities to help them understand that the right to choose their our own future is entirely within their grasp.
Many Volunteers in all programs are also involved in minority community development and tolerance-building activities, particularly with youth. There are significant Roma (gypsy), Turkish, and Bulgarian Muslim minorities in Bulgaria, and efforts towards integrating minorities into mainstream Bulgarian society are particularly important to Bulgaria’s agenda as she joins the EU. Many Volunteers work with Roma organizations and help them through activities such as summer camps, life-skills sessions, leadership classes, and the creation of integrated community centers.
Bulgaria is at a stage in her rapid development where Peace Corps Volunteers can have significant and rewarding impact, as many local organizations and youth are eager for new ideas and Peace Corps Volunteers can be excellent role models for Bulgarian youth and catalysts for change. Peace Corps Volunteers become members of the communities in which they live. Volunteers have an opportunity to touch the lives of those around them and to contribute to their community’s development, often in ways that may initially seem small, but have the potential to positively impact the direction of someone’s life. With Bulgaria's accession to the EU, Peace Corps/Bulgaria breaks new ground and continues to evolve and respond to Bulgaria’s rapid social and economic change.