In early April 2000 I went back to Bulgaria for the fourth time. We had again spent the winter collecting useful things for the orphans and underprivileged in Rousse. Our dining room became a store and sorting centre for clothing, shoes, toys, computers, etc. Eventually we filled 300 large apple boxes with over 4 tons of Aid.

We had decided to send the Aid by container which proved a very successful and hassle free way of transporting everything. Along with three retired Rotarians and neighbours we loaded the container one morning in March and it went off by sea to Varna. From there it went by road to Russe. We travelled separately and were waiting to meet it to clear customs. The distribution to the nine different centres we are now involved with took a full day.

Over the next two weeks we revisited each place, talking to the children and old people. We checked with the staff to ensure that what we had taken was useful and needed. The four Orphanages house nearly 400 children in total and have made great improvements during the three years we have been involved with them. They were very grateful for the clothing and toys we took for them and loved the colourful cot blankets. Many friends and some Inner Wheel members had dressed dolls. The joy these brought to little, and not so little, girls was a pleasure to witness. Can you imagine being eight years old and never having had a doll?

We also enjoyed our visits to the centres for the disabled. Children who were previously isolated in high rise flats are now brought in by minibus to the Caritas Centre and taught many skills. We had taken clothing, toys, games, computers, sewing machines and bales of cloth. At the Club Courage, a centre for 500 disabled people of all ages in the Russe area, we were greeted with great enthusiasm. They were extremely pleased with the large quantity of good quality clothing we had taken and we arranged for them to have a computer to help in training. Disabled people find it very difficult to find employment and their allowance is pitifully small so any help we can give releases money for them to spend on food and heating costs.

The Old People's Homes were a different story! Was this really Europe in the year 2000? The homes were dilapidated, poorly lit, scarcely heated and terribly cramped. Many of these people spend all their time in bed on mattresses that have never had waterproof covers. The rooms are crowded ten or twelve beds to a room, pushed up one to another. A lifetime's belongings in a carrier bag under the bed. No personal space, no comfort and precious little dignity!

Imagine how cold it must be when the temperature drops to 20 degrees below freezing for long periods in the winter. The toilet facilities defy description and in the kitchen a diesel engine is used to heat hotplates to cook on. Dinner that night comprised four spring onions, a slice of bread and a very small piece of halva cake.

We were in shock for several days and determined to help in whatever way we can. We visited the local hospital at the invitation of a surgeon who is a local Rotarian. We met a number of the patients and talked to the team of doctors. They are dedicated and very skilled but they lack the money to buy equipment for modern operations. New techniques would mean less time in hospital and a less trauma for the children. They would like help to purchase equipment and also a contact with a British hospital with similar specialities.

Our final visit was to a village 25 km away from Russe. There is a scheme to train mentally handicapped youngsters to work land that has been donated by a remarkable and energetic widow. The plan has been worked out very carefully for 10 young people to live together with leaders. First they will help to re-furbish the house and then to learn to look after animals and to grow crops. They now need a sponsor to guarantee the wages of two supervisors for the first year at £50 per month each. A total of only £1200 to pay the wages for two people for a whole year!

After two weeks in Bulgaria we took the bus back to Greece, glad that we had done a little to help those less fortunate that we had found in Russe. With the help of Rotarians, Inner Wheelers and friends both there and here we intend to continue. It will be back to collection and packing once more in the autumn and to Christmas dinner 2000 again surrounded by boxes.


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