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Sunday, December 27, 2009

"If all difficulties were known at the outset of a long journey, most of us would never start out at all." - Dan Rather

It's been a year since my "little" tumble down the mountain here in Maliovitsa (and yes, I realize I seem to be rather found of these "anniversary" posts...), and I'm in absolute awe of how surreal this past year has been. I never take the easy route in doing anything, and I also don't do anything half way... so when you take those two characteristics of my being and put them together, there shouldn't be any doubt in how intense things have been since I broke my leg. Pretty soon after I got home last year, people started asking me if I had any idea why God would have allowed the accident to happen - why He would have pulled me from my work here in Samokov just when I was beginning to feel as though He was changing my heart and helping me be passionate and excited about life as a PCV here. For the longest time, that question angered me and I didn't want to think about it. I was MAD at the circumstances - and especially the timing. I had asked God to either make it clear that Bulgaria was where I was supposed to be (as opposed to drawing out the time before I could return back to inner city USA) by changing my heart, or give me some undeniable sign that I should pack my bags. As it turns out, it appeared that I received BOTH answers to prayer - and NOT AT ALL how I would have requested them to be answered. You would think I'd figure it out by now that God has a way better grasp on my life than I do... but it took me months to be able to surrender all that and find peace in my situation. I then decided that if God took a leg that wasn't healing and healed it within the time frame that PC was giving me, AND if my doctor cleared me to go, I had no choice but to return to the journey God had called me on in July off 2008. As it turned out, after months and months with a rather serious non-union fracture, I went from 0% healed to 90% healed in about 6 weeks. Basically medically impossible.

But I knew better. :)

"Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows."
James 1:17
So now, exactly a year from the most painful (physically... emotionally... spiritually...) experience of my life, I'm sitting in my apartment wrapped up in my Snuggie while watching old Christmas movies and eating my weight in homemade Baklava from my friends from work, and so thankful for renewed perspective and its affect on my circumstance.
As always, Life ain't easy- but it's so good.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

And that Charlie Brown...

I'm off today to get some errands done in Sofia (more on that soon, but to everyone from BBC who helped with my project, thank you!!), then tomorrow heading South to celebrate Christmas with my PCV family. And no skiing!! Promise. :)

I love and miss everyone back home more than you can imagine. MERRY CHRISTMAS!!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Rule number one: never go ANYWHERE as a PCV without a camera... you never know when an impromtu dance party (or something else just as incredible) may commence.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Getting ready to "Celebrate the Day"

I find it hard (very hard, in fact) to stay focused here. I chose Peace Corps largely because I knew it was going to stretch me in ways I've never been - and need to be - put to the test. With Christmas coming up this week, it's been especially distracting. For me, Christmas is a reminder to be centered on a gift and grace I have never once deserved, and the opportunity to celebrate with loved ones. It's hard... being here. Away from all of that.

So here's a song that helps put things in perspective.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tis the season...

To "paint" cookies!!


Last year, my aunt sent me some fun things to use with my program kids from Svetlina to decorate Christmas cookies, and even though I only had a few kids participate, they LOVED it! They'd never done anything like it before, and its still a tradition with me every year, so I was very excited when I got another package last month filled with cookie decorations, sprinkles, food coloring... everything!

This year we had about 25 kids come, and it was a blast. In fact, the newspaper even came to take some pictures and write an article for the Samokov paper about our Christmas activities.












So, even though I'm feeling pretty homesick being away from family this time of year, its been great to have a little bit of "home" here with me.
THANKS VAL!!!!

Last week was a really long and emotional week. But considering I've been back for three months and that was the first all around rough week (and not to mention all of my extremities are in tact...) I've had, I guess I don't have much to complain about. 

It all started when it suddenly hit me hard that this is the second of three Christmases in a row that I'll be away from my family. Not to mention that December 5th was five years from the death of a friend from Barcroft Youth Group. I didn't know Ben all that well, but I looked up to him more than I did probably any one else... he was just one of those guys who's love for Christ and people was contagious, and when he died a hero in Iraq midway through my freshman year, it hit me hard. So, the emotional weekend kicked off a very frustrating week where my patience and energy levels were already low.

The brief rundown: rough week of programming with my kids at the center (attendance has been tough...), I adopted a very needy and obnoxious cat (who was supposed to be a kitten) who later chewed through my computer AC adapter, I substituted for a day of English classes (which stresses me out and I'm convinced I am a horrible teacher), I got locked in my classroom by a group of kids I didn't even know after they shoved a stuck through the door handles... then stood by and laughed as I tried to wave to some other kids to let me out, my computer cable was deemed unfixable, I had no computer to talk to the people who are always there for me when I need them, one of my kids is going through something at home and she won't tell me what it is and I don't know how to be there for her, for the first time in my life I am dreaming at night... and I hate it, I got really really sick on Saturday, and on top of all this (and more...), I lost my favorite scarf at the very beginning of a super cold winter. 

That's the watered down version, but let's just say I'm extremely thankful for a new week, amazing family and friends, fantastic colleagues, local computer tech guys (who speak English!!), a God who promises not to give me more than I can handle.... and the Kuchek Chicken Dance. 

Monday, November 30, 2009

I'd be lying if I didn't admit that even though I've only seen my Svetlina kids 4 days in the last month (for various reasons... many of which are out of our control, and the other reasons we're trying to reconcile with grant applications and program strengthening), this time around I find the work infinitely more emotionally draining. The reality of the situation and circumstance with my kids wears on me in the worst way, but I just want to express how much I LOVE my work here. No matter how tired or worn out I am (or frustrated!), the kids make me smile and remind me why I'm here.

Lately, my joy has come from these little kiddos - my Detska Gradina (Kindergarten) boys (don't ask why the whole class is boys... no clue... there are technically girls, but I rarely see them, and certainly never all three at the same time!).


Little Ivo! SUCH a sweetheart... 

Boicho - "Katie, why do you have to work with OTHER kids? Why can't you stay here with us?" Love... :)


Yanko
SO CUTE!! I love watching some of the older boys help the younger ones with their lettering practice. 

[Big] Ivo... a little high maintenance, but always the first one to yell my name when I walk in the classroom. 
I know you aren't supposed to have a favorite when you work with kids... but look at him!! And he's always sooo excited about our English lessons. 

And last, but CERTAINLY not least, HRISTO!!! A very special little boy and my one on one buddy. :) Look at the smile! I just ignore the fact that the pic I took 3 seconds before this featured him sticking his tongue out at me... haha.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Turkey Day from Bulgaria!

"The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."
Frederick Buechner


This year I'm thankful for second chances... and families that come in so many different forms. :)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Last week was one of the more emotionally trying weeks I've had since I've been back in country. Although the work is easier this go around (but only because during my time at home I found my passion and drive for where God has called me), the reality of the situation here and the nature of my job is on the draining side. It's funny, in the grand scheme of things, I spend very little time with my kids. In fact, today was the first day in more than three weeks I even SAW them. When you combine the swine flu that knocked out about two and a half weeks of work with last week's "incident," its been a little slow in these parts.

Last weekend I was invited to the in-service training for the newest group of volunteers to give a brief choice session on working with Roma. Since I am one of the few volunteers who works solely with the Roma population (more on that later), I was asked to go over my experiences and plans, and share the struggles I have encountered along the way. Because of the timing, I missed the kid's first day back to school after two weeks of official swine flu "vacation" (we also lost kid's attendence in the days leading up to the mandated closure). On Wednesday, I headed over to the office to prep for the day's game with the kids, and encountered a HUGE crowd of seemingly angry people, and an entire fleet of police cars (well... 6... but thats more than I have ever seen here!) at the Tourism magnet school directly across the street from my school.

As soon as I got to the office, I called my counterpart to see if she knew what was going on, because there were no kids in site. From the little I understood, I gathered that there was a stabbing, and one of the students from our school was hurt, but I didn't get any more details (my ability to understand Bulgarian on the phone without visual cues is limited). Later, I asked a couple Bulgarians at the basketball game what had happened, and got so many conflicting reports. One person said a man stabbed a young child, another said that a teenage Bulgarian boy stabbed a young Roma student and he was dead (???), and still another person gave a different story. Nothing lined up, so I vowed to remain indifferent until I got real details.

Before I go further, read this: http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=110133

This was the article I got in the morning. The "school across the street" is where I work. Samokov is known for these "alleged" racial issues... in 2007 a Roma teenager was beaten to death in the town center while people essentially watched it happen. Roma all over the country protested and rallied, so when this incident happened, even though it was a group of Bulgarian students fighting a group of Roma students, people were angry.

They immediately closed my school and the kids were sent home. The boy who was stabbed (9th grader who used to be in our program... i met him last year a couple of times but don't work with him now) suffered a fairly extensive abdominal wound and immediately went into surgery (as far as I know he is still at the hospital), but is going to be ok. The mayor and police chief were called out to the school to try and calm the maddening crowds, and the next day parents came to the school without their kids to demand answers, and a Ministry representative from Sofia was called in to try and "diffuse" the situation.

Later on, this article was written: http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=110172

Needless to say, its a hard reality to deal with. Regardless of whether racial issues are "artificially" created or not, there are HERE. Parents already don't understand the value of their kids education, since 9th grade is the last stop for most of them anyway (if they get that far). So now I am tasked with trying to find a way to reach the parents, and MORE kids than just the ones who are already a part of our program. It's tiring. And emotionally draining, and many days I'm not sure what direction to head in...

I was asked the other day if I regret coming back, the answer is still NO. I'm just thankful to know what I'm fighting for, even though I don't know how to quite yet.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

On the 22nd of November, exactly a year ago, I woke up to 6 inches of snow on the ground, and it continued to come down all day. This year, we've already seen snow a couple of days, but today, its in the 60s outside.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I've always heard people say that God has a sense of humor, and I tend to believe that claim. On Sunday I arrived to the bus station early to wait in line for the 4pm bus to Plovdiv. It was super crowded, so I was glad I had allowed the time to make sure I was at the front of the line. About 15 minutes before the bus was schedule to leave (don't forget - this is Europe... a bus will leave early, but never late), I was proudly standing at the front of the line when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I had to interupt the conversation as the Bulgarians in front of me muscled there way to the front of the line. I lost my place, and by the time I fought my way to the front, the bus was full. Completely. And I was out of luck since the next bus wasn't until the next morning...

While I was trying to figure out what to do (didn't even have enough time to try and go through Sofia), I threw out the cliche hail mary prayer, "alright God... you know how important this is!"

Next thing I know, the bus driver is waving me towards him. Again, he told me there was no room, to which I replied that I had understood, I was just trying to figure out what to do. He looked at the ticket collector, who looked at me, looked back at the driver, then grabbed a newspaper, spread it out on the stairs of the double decker bus, and emphatically said, "sit!"

And there I sat - for the next hour.

I may have gotten a tad car sick on the windy mountain roads while watching the window at my feet whip through the scenery, but thanks. I got there. :)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

While I seem to be able to navigate my way almost anywhere in this country, I am utterly incapable of returning home in anything that might resemble an efficient fashion (case in point - getting locked on a bus because i took it in the wrong direction once, and remember that loooonnngg trip back home to the US with a broken leg and without a passport? yeah...).

So, here is a shout out to the 26 (and a half) Bulgarians in Plovdiv who helped me navigate my incredibly painful route back to Samokov yesterday.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Awkwardly comfortable...

Comfortably awkward?

I'm pretty sure that exactly sums up what PC Volunteers all around the world are striving for during their service. You know how you sometimes put things off because it stresses you out, but all along you know the longer you wait, the harder the task will be? Well, that is how I felt about calling my host parents from Pre-Service Training... until I finally called them on Thursday, they didn't even know I was back in the country. So, yesterday I went for a little lunch time "na gosti" (basically having guests or being a guest in someones home) with Svetla and Kiril.


The whole day was interesting... I only live about 30 minutes (+ a 2km walk from the highway) from my training village from my town now, so its an easy trek and very doable to spend the day with them before returning on the 5pm bus. Last fall, when I would come, Kiril would meet me out by the highway and we would walk in together. I loved seeing him waiting for me when I got off the bus!! Then we would go back, make lunch together, drink coffee, and catch up. This time, however, I walk to their house and into the yard, and no one is home. I was really confused. I called ahead of time to make sure they would be home, so I started to replay my phone convo with Kiril to make sure we had both understood everything! I didn't understand where I went wrong... finally I walk out through the garden to the field and he is back there working. He comes out to greet me, apologizes for working, hands me a magazine and said he would be back in a little while and Svetla was on her way. Turns out their daughter had just had her baby, and Svetla was in Sofia helping, and should have been back that morning. So, my host dad and I spend an entire "awkwardly comfortable" day talking about everything and nothing in particular, while playing with the new kitten! (who, by the way... would have come home with me if we could figure out a way to transport him on the bus...). Anyway, Svetla finally came home later, and I hated to tell her I only had another hour before the last bus from town, so we drank a quick cup of coffee and ate my mom's famous (and heavily adapted here in the Bulg) coffee cake before I was showered with apples, potatoes, and homemade wine to take back with me. Then Svetla walked me to the bus and made me promise to come back soon when everyone had more time. Not how I expected things to go, but a good day. :)


PS - when dealing with farm animals and live stock, don't ask questions you don't want to know the answer to. And most importantly, don't make friends with any of them.


But kittens, are not livestock!!! Misho!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Happy Veteran's Day!

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy


"Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matt 5:9)

Regardless of your stance on war and politics, remember the men and women who have sacrificed for your freedoms, and are continuing to do so everday. Let's prove to them we're a generation who hasn't forgotten their bravery - thank a veteran! And those continuing to serve now.

Happy Veterans Day.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

2 Months

If I've said it before, I'll say it again: passage of time here baffles me. As of today, I've been back in the Bulg for two months. Some days being here feels so right and so normal, and other days leave me feeling like it could all be taken away again at any moment. When someone reminds me I haven't actually been here working for the majority of the last year, it almost catches me off guard, but at the same time, the time I spent at home felt like an eternity and a lifetime ago. Hard to believe winter is here, I'm settled in, and I'm ready and waiting to tackle the frigid cold here in the Balkans.

I think I still have to process the journey I've been on the last couple of years. Much of it is surreal, then I remember how amazingly blessed I've been with such incredible opportunities!! How many 23 year olds have spent the time since their 21st birthday working as a gang unit intern with the police department (including a couple - small - undercover assignments and a missing person turned murder case!), and then finding their calling on the streets of NYC living and loving like Christ for 4 months before embarking on the adventure of a life time in Bulgaria with the Peace Corps... then sitting on a plane [unmedicated] alternating between tears and fits of laughter... and realizing it was all being taken away.... for 9 months.... possibly indefinitely... and then ultimately realizing how much it was worth fighting for... and then FIGHTING for it? Now if that doesn't exhaust you but make you super excited, then I don't know what will.

But here I am, missing my friends and family and the life that awaits me back home in a year and a half... but blessed beyond measure and thrilled for the second chance to be here.

"So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner natuer is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal." - 2 Cor. 4:16-18

Thursday, November 5, 2009

It's cold outside... but there is enough sun that I decided to take a chance on drying my bedsheets outside (I mean, I should have a couple more weeks before they immediately freeze, right?). Well, I think it was drying well enough that I should have been able to bring it in by the end of the day.

But a little bird... just decided to relieve itself... on my freshly clean bedsheet.

Oh le le.

"Svinski Grip"

http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=109635

The news is estimating that within the next week, Bulgaria will officially be in a "national crisis" for swine flu. My school closed this past Monday, and will remain closed until at least this coming Tuesday. Apparently there is a law in Bulgaria that if 30% of the student body is absent for whatever reason, then the school is required to close. On Monday I was substitute teaching for the English classes at my school (and if you know ANYTHING about me, you know I had been dreading this since I "volunteered" to do it for the day), and no kids showed up to my first period. I had two children for second period, third and fourth off, three kids in 5th, and then before I ever got to the last class, we were closed for "Swine Flu Vacation." Schools and towns along the Eastern part of the country were closing pretty quickly, but Samokov was the first Western municipality to declare an "epidemic." The news article estimates that 100,000 Bulgarians are sick with the "new flu," and once we hit 200 sick for every 10,000 Bulgarians, we'll officially be in a national crisis. Kind of scary, and definitely contributing to a panic mode! I walk by the hospital every day on my way to work, and it has been soooo crowded over the last couple of weeks. I even heard that some hospitals nationwide are having to turn people away because they are ill-equipped to handle everyone seeking medical attention.

On another note... I've been taking "my week off" as an opportunity to catch up on some of the administrative work I have to do. My organization has zero cash flow at the moment, and in dire need of some fuel for our operating costs. The last couple of days I have been weeding through old projects and trying to find pieces we can utilize for new grant proposals. One I've been working on in particular is focused on capacity building and social skills building for the kids. It's pretty awesome sounding, but trying to understand parts of it (it is in English, but you can tell at parts its been translated and retranslated back and forth between Bulgarian and English multiple times) well enough to formulate new ideas has been a challenge. But, I think as soon as I can work with my colleagues and decide on a dollar amount, it should be ready to go. Of course, this is just the letter... if we get approved to submit the full project, we are no where near being done!! :)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Starting a whole week...

Of essentially nothing but project brainstorming/writing and studying, because its official - my school is on a "flu vacation" until next Tuesday.

Ще видим...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fighting a champion-less battle...

As "future" Peace Corps Volunteers, we often romanticize the coming Peace Corps experience. We read and hear about mosquito tents and daily water regimes, living without power (and God forbid - INTERNET ;)), and two years without a real cheeseburger.

When the day comes and you receive an invitation to serve in the Eastern Block for the next 27 months of your life, part of you knows better, but you still envision something resembling a mud hut, dirt roads, and the third world.

Then you actually get here... and while many of us still deal with the occasional "squatty potty," donkey cart, flea infestation, or exploding appliance; we all rest assured knowing that the closest McDonald's is "reasonable" bus ride away (how badly DO you want that cheeseburger?), internet is accessible (often at home), we can catch a movie or go bowling if and when the need/desire arises, and as far as European travel, the world is our oyster.

It can be distracting as a Peace Corps volunteer to know these luxuries are not just accessible, but often affordable. Not exactly the sacrificial lifestyle we all envision during those days of anticipation.

However "spoiled" we might be with amenities, all of the Big Macs and Bruce Willis movies in the world don't stand a chance against the emotional battle we fight here. If I was posted in the Africa or South America regions, my job as a PCV would be to offer grass roots development, usually by way of offering a skill set to achieve something tangible. When I left after my 2 year tour, I would leave knowing that if I built the well my village needed and transferred those skills to help in the future, I was successful.

Here, though? Reality is that I very well could leave Samokov in April 2011 leaving only a minimal trace of sustainability towards continued development. Sure, I'll have built relationships with some amazing kids, and that can't be taken away from either party. But what about the continued fight on racism and segregation? Soviet "ideals?" Corruption? Educational reform? I may be Pavlov's dog when it comes to that promised Mickey D's cheeseburger when I embark to the capital a mere hour away, but no amount of processed beef-like substances can lessen the emotional battles that can occur here.

Are we fighting a losing battle? Maybe.

Does that make it any less important? Nope.

Is our presence here viable and extremely crucial? Absolutely.

PC Bulgaria isn't any better, worse, easier, or harder than any other post in the Peace Corps. It's just different...

Maybe a developmental presence here is even more important. Because in posts that have never seen development, they don't know what they are missing. But here in the Eastern Block, entire people groups are being left behind in an otherwise developing world. Minority Groups (Roma and people with disabilities specifically come to mind) lack opportunity. It's there, it's just hard or impossible for them to access. Mindsets from former goverments are generations away from entirely being turned over.

The need is here, and after a 9 month "sabbatical" (haha, perfect...) I am so incredibly blessed and thankful to have acquired a new perspective to approach my current task in life: giving a voice to the voiceless, and loving on people who need it the most here in Samokov, Bulgaria while doing my part to help change the way they see the world, and most importantly - change the way the world sees THEM.

"The end of communism is still remote because communism, more than a political ideology or a method of the government, is a state of mind. Political power may change hands overnight, economics and social life may soon follow, but people's personalities, shaped by the communist regimes they lived under, are slower to change. Their characters have so deeply incorporated a particular set of values, a way of thinking and of perceiving the world, that exorcising this way of being will take an unforseeable length of time."
- How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, by Slavenka Drakulic -

One point for the stubborn American!

Today I quested my way back to the migration office in Sofia to tackle "step 2" of my permanent residency card. The goal was to return triumphant, and hopefully with even a fraction of the gratification I felt earlier this month when I successfully completed the first step for my card.

After knocking on the window, the woman was immediately like, "Filkins?" Not so sure how I feel about being so quickly recognized at the police station in a city where I don't even live (maybe thats better than being known where I DO live? Hmmm), but I chuckled to myself at the reality of the situation.

**Briefly to catch anyone who doesn't know every detail of "Katie's series of unfortunate events" early last winter: I started the process for my first residency card about a year ago. I went into Sofia for the first two steps, then only a week or so before my actual card was ready, my passport was stolen out of my purse just after reporting another... incident... Your residency card is directly linked to your passport, so they wouldn't give me the card until they processed a new one for the new passport. So we started the process over. I applied for a new passport and while waiting for it, I decided it would be fun to go ahead and break my leg and make everyone's lives - namely my own - miserable. Then this summer, when I decided to return, I decided to frustrate both the US and Bulgarian governments with this little story of mine, but here I am. So yes, I'm pretty much famous all the world over.**

So, under an hour later (victory is mine!) I left the police station with a promise that my card would be ready for pick up in about a month.

History would indicate that if I can make it through this next month bez (without) incident, I should be in the clear. AND NO SKIING!!

Promise. :)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

BEAUTIFUL GIRLS!!!

Seriously... these are some really special momicha's!



I got to spend the afternoon with them in what started out as a "photography as art" lesson, and turned into an all out photo op around Samokov. In addition to being absolutely gorgeous, Petya (left) and Galia have pretty incredible hearts.

Love it.


Posted by Picasa

Friday, October 16, 2009

"Head and shoulders, knees and toes (knees and toes!)!

I got to color and sing "Head and Shoulders" with the most adorable little kids today! It was my first day in the kindergarten, and we learned some body parts in English before breaking out the colored pencils and talking about sea animals that start with the "r" sound in Bulgarian. So fun!

I spent about an hour and a half with them before lunch and nap time, and I am really excited about returning a couple times every week. The kids are absolute sweethearts, and it looks like in addition to mini English lessons, I will get the chance to work with little Hristo. He's six years old, and has Down's Syndrome. One of the "at-risk" groups in Bulgaria are special needs children. A disproportionate number of children in orphanages and institutions are Roma or children with developmental disabilities. Usually, these children are institutionalized at a very young age, so last year when I worked at a day center for special needs kids, it was an encouraging and progressive thing to be a part of. But, they were well staffed and even better resourced, so I decided that even though I loved the kids and young adults there, it wasn't the best use of my time since they were already established and doing so well.

Anyway, Hristo is technically "main-streamed" with the rest of the kids in his class (meaning he is with them all day...), but I noticed that since he isn't capable of performing at the same level as his classmates, he usually sits in the corner and plays since the teacher is spread relatively thin and can't afford to give him one on one attention. So I asked if I could work with him while the other kids are doing their lessons after our English session! The teacher basically told me that whatever I could offer, they wanted. Especially English, since they had wanted to introduce some English words to the kids to help with cognitive development and to prepare them for school in the next couple of years (kindergarten here is technically preschool...). So, I am glad to be of help, but I am also excited about the opportunity to work with Hristo and even though my experience with special needs children is limited (and a bit dated... I worked with some autistic grade school students on a weekly basis while in high school... infrequently since then!), maybe come up with some models for more active participation and interaction from the special needs students. Instead of merely "keeping them busy," I want to encourage emphasis on the development of their cognitive and motor skills.

And, he's a cutie! I got the biggest grin when I gave him a hug on my way out today. Not to mention another little boy asked when I could come back and sing with them.

It will definitely be something to look forward to every week. :)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Where is FALL?!?

The first thing my counterpart said to me a year ago when we met was, "you know its cold in Samokov, right? You know its in the mountains and one of the coldest cities in Bulgaria, right? You'll love it!"

Now, whenever I mention being cold, she laughs and says she warned me! Thanks Katya... :)

Last year I moved to Samokov on October 9th, and it was weeks before I routinely used my heater. This go around, I've been using my heater to knock the chill off of my freezer box for awhile, anxiously anticipating the day the gentleman downstairs lights his first fire... And a couple nights ago, it SNOWED!! I was on my way up to a local village for a little na gosti with some friends, and the first time I left my apartment I ran back upstairs to grab my rain coat to help defend against the icy cold precipitation. But little more than a minute later when I walked out the front door of my block, I groaned as I was greeted with SNOW. Wet, and lots of it. The cold front came all too fast for it to stick - the ground is still too warm, but not for long! It snowed for hours that night, and the next morning when I looked up to the mountains, I longed for the lost Fall Season as I noticed the ski slopes (a mere 15 minutes away) were COVERED in snow! I've been told to expect a longer, colder winter this year. And considering I only made it to 2 days after christmas last year, I'm in for a long haul until April! And to think, I willingly decided to sign up for a THIRD winter next year. Oozhus.

Other than impending doom rolling into my mountain town (brrrr... long underwear, scarfs, and hats ALREADY!?!?), things are going well. I met with a teacher and then the director of the kindergarten down in the Roma neighborhood earlier this week, and I will be able to help down there a couple mornings a week. I am excited! I miss spending time with little kids, so this will be something to look forward to, in addition to another avenue to spending time down in the other part of town.

Speaking of which, my photography contest (that i was SO excited about for a ton of reasons) appears to be a bust. None of the kids have showed up for their sessions various reasons. I'm hoping to grab a few to at least set an example of how fun it could be for the other kids, but so far its not working. I find it very hard to engage the kids outside of our designated times and programs. I seem to get them as a captive audience every day for an hour after school, but then thats it. You can't get them to plan ahead very far, and none of them will return later in the evening because of work and family obligations. So my new goal is to find the best way to maximize the small amount of time I DO have, and ways to engage them for additional activities... its a challenge, thats for sure!

On another note, yesterday I was finally able to finish fine tuning my first project! Well, rather, the letter of intent to show my interest to be considered for the grant! I submitted a years worth of enrichment and integration programming to be considered for funding by the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe. It's extremely competitive, and I won't hear anything back for awhile, but if we pass the first wicket, I'll hear again and be invited to submit the ENTIRE project for the next step. So, for now, we wait... and work on other ideas!


Brrrrrr. Seriously, its cold. And I'm not ready. We only got like 5 days of fall before winter and freezing temperatures hit. And I seem to be a bit homesick this week...

Friday, October 9, 2009

HAPPY ONE YEAR OF SERVICE, B-24s!!!!


Even though I took a rather unanticipated 9month "sabbatical" and can't truly celebrate with you all yet, CONGRATULATIONS!!!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

“Many times with Jesus, genuine love and hope came in the oddest of packages. It was friendship; He laughed with them. It was life; He ate with them. He healed them. He loved them. He hung out with them. He became their friend in their environment, their neighborhood, their home… their gutter. He provided Hope to people with common pain and illustrated that normal people with normal problems and normal pain are the cement that forms the foundations of the gutter.”

- The Gutter, by Craig Gross

Monday, October 5, 2009

Overwhelming week... awesome weekend. :)

This week was a little bit of a reality check. Nothing legitimately frustrating happened (and we all know I'm a magnet for those "incidents!"), I just felt a little frustrated and down.

But I had a super fun weekend! Went out on Friday night with some new friends and had a blast, then had a na gosti (dinner and visiting as a guest) with good company that resulted in the obligatory Bulgarian food coma (yummmmm), then spent Sunday with my friends in Sofia!

And then, to top it all off, I had a very self-gratifying and productive day in Sofia today. I spent the night last night because I had to head into the city today to restart the process for my permanent residency card (lichna karta). I had to apply all over again since I never actually received my card last fall and its now expired... but I was determined to try and complete step 1 by myself. My counterpart was on standy here in Samokov, but she had to work until after lunch, so I braved it alone, and was able to call her and tell her she didn't have to come!

The first step was FINDING the police station. I didn't know how to distinguish the one department from others when asking for directions (no one knew if it had a name or not), so i totally winged it and ended up finding it pretty quickly, then was even able to ask for directions for a photo place to get the pictures I needed taken. Then I went into the office and was able to handle the entire process! I was missing a form, but we worked it out that I can bring it for step 2. She asked me why I didn't have a colleague with me since usually foreigners have someone with them, but I said she was working and I was going to try and figure it out. She said I filled out the forms beautifully, and she was impressed at how well I did. Haha, in reality I was terrified, but when I walked out of there having completed the first step, it felt amazing. :) I rewarded myself with a McDonald's cheeseburger!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

It's for real.

I've officially been back in the country for three weeks - back at site for two. But I spent four days of that time back with the 24th group of PC Volunteers in Bulgaria at our Mid-Service Conference. Well, THEIR mid-service conference, and my "Congratulations on returning and continuing your service" conference. It was so great to see everyone, despite the fact that I have missed out on so much of the last year. I've missed it, and them, and feel a little displaced from the group dynamic, even though everyone has been fantastic to me (even WHILE seizing every opportunity to throw a jab at the "bionic woman." But if it wasn't me, I'd be in on it too. Nicely done, guys).

But it still feels strange to be back. Some moments I feel like I never left, and other times it feels like I haven't been here for years. Or ever.

Most days with the kids are fantastic. They obviously feel comfortable with me still, and I've been at ease for the most part.

But then there are days like today, where everything is just... well.... "off."

I'm thinking maybe the reality hit me this afternoon. On one hand, I'm still getting settled back in, but on the other, I feel as though I should just have picked up where I left off and be sprinting forward. So that's what I tried to do today after game time with the kids (Which was crazy overwhelming - tons of kids showed up, and all of the sudden I lost my remaining scraps of Bulgarian, and I kind of panicked. Didn't go well....). I tried to recover my frustration from my time at the center and get to work. I went through some of the old projects my organization has done, and essentially lost it.

I feel like I have a lot of ideas, and a lot to offer in general, but I was looking over this project the last volunteer wrote with my colleagues, and found the detail (basically planned an entire two years of sessions, workshops, cultural excursions, etc) incredibly overwhelming. I have some project/grant ideas, but they all seem undeniably inadequate after looking over these goals and objectives.

Oy ve. I have so much work to do - but where to start?



Not to mention I woke up today and could tell that the weather is about to turn. I could feel it in my bones. Quite literally, actually.... Ouch.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Always keeping things interesting....

In addition to getting me back to Bulgaria before winter in the cold Rila mountains set in (there is already snow on the mountain!), the goal was also to get me back before my team's Mid-Service Conference!

Success - today I am leaving to meet up with all of the B24s to celebrate one year of service! Haha, kind of humorous, considering I have missed the last 9 months of our first year, but I am thrilled to reconnect with everyone.

I am very thankful I get to "stay" a member of the 24th group of PCVs in Bulgaria, even though I am more closely aligned with the new 25th group, but the staff here is essentially going to treat me like I am extending. I will go through Close Of Service Conference with everyone, and then watch as they all leave next October to travel the world before starting "real life" wherever that leads them.

As crazy surreal as it seems sometimes, I can't express how thankful I am for how this has all worked out.

REAL WORK starts next week!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I found out today that plans for a photography contest for my kids next month coincides with the National Geographic International KIDS photography contest!!

My kids will have the opportunity to submit photos not only to our little Svetlina contest, but if we submit photos to the NG office here in Sofia by October 31st, they will be judged and the best will be entered into the international contest. The winner wins a trip for four to DC! How incredible would it be to send one of my Samokov kids on a tour of the most powerful city in the world?

If I teach them anything in the next year and a half, I want them to know that they ARE worth it, and that someone does care, and they can be ANYTHING they want to be.

Each one will get an hour of my undivided attention and use of my Nikon DSLR, and I get to live in their world for awhile. After that, the possibilities are endless.

How sweet is this?






Abby - you're a God send. Can't wait to see you! Thanks for being such a blessing. And for GETTING IT.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

This "Take 2" thing has been pretty exciting. Not that I would wish a broken leg or this last year on anyone, but it is crazy to think about everything that has happened since I left the first time in July of 2008, but here I am.

For the most part, I am settled back into my cozy little one bedroom [Soviet style] block apartment, and have jumped back into my work. I went into the office two days this week after having arrived on Tuesday afternoon, and feel grounded enough to hit the ground "running" (or as much so as possible in Bulgaria) after Bulgarian Independence day and a Peace Corps conference this week.

I have also settled back into the overactive mind disorder I seem to frequently struggle with. My weeks, for the most part, will resemble my previous schedule, but instead of returning to "Trust Me" (the day center for kids with disabilities), where they are well staffed and well-resourced, I will focus my time at my host organization - Svetlina. My main goal will be to help push projects and grants through, but I have my daily activities with the kiddos as well:
  • Mondays: English sessions
  • Tuesdays: Arts and Crafts (ideas, anyone?!??!)
  • Wednesdays: Sports and relays
  • Thursdays: Games and Lifeskills

For accountability sake, PLEASE constantly pester me about how the following things are going:

  • Monthly art contests - starting with a photography contest. In theory, the kids will each get one on one time with me and my camera. They will be allotted about 45 minutes to an hour of a photo shoot session, where with my supervision, they will be encouraged to photo their homes, family, friends, etc. They will submit their top two photos for the contest. Not only will this serve as a creative outlet, but it will give me one on one time with each of them, as well as be my "in" into the Roma neighborhood where they will get to show me their lives. After October, we will have found-art, painting, drawing, sculpture, etc, contests.
  • Basketball clinic and tournament - I started pushing this through last fall, but now I have a new sitemate who works at the sports arena for a Sports NGO! I want this to be an integration project with half Roma/half Bulgarian participants.
  • (I'm constantly told that this ISN'T a priority, but...) - renovation of my school. Photos and explanation to follow...

And that's what life looks like right now! I am not going into the office on Fridays so I can focus on research and internet time in my apartment, as well as find other opportuntities to serve in Samokov, even if that involves designated time to throw around the football with some neighbor kids.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Аз съм Доброволка!!! Ами.... ПАК!!

The first time I got on the plane for Bulgaria, it was a climax of months and months of anticipation. This time, however, I couldn't help but feel this incrediblly conflicting surge of excitement, fear, (insanity?), peace, and unreadiness. I mean, for so long I was told to basically forget my dreams of being a Peace Corps Volunteer and settled for my three months as a Trainess and (barely... not really even...) three months as an actual volunteer.

I started job and apartment hunting when my surgeon told me that, "if we don't see any signs of healing 6 months after the injury, we'll start considering other options." I found myself indescribably addicted to PetFinder.com's puppy listings. I'd made my decision - I was going to stay.

Then I traveled to Bulgaria with my parents in April to say my last goodbyes to the country and people I had grown to love so very much.

And everything changed.

My heart. My optimism. My mindset.

And low and behold, my HEALING process.

It was a miracle, really. To go from not healing at all to MINIMAL signs of healing to about 90% healed in about 6 weeks? Nothing short of a miracle. God definitely had His hand in this whole thing.

Many administrative and bureacratic headaches later, I found myself on a plane strapped next to a guy who had a story for everything. At least he warned me about how loud and persistent his snoring was before he fell asleep for the last 6 hours of our trip.

I said goodbye to the family and friends I had grown to appreciate more than ever, but only to finish the journey I was blessed to have started over a year before.

Now I am sitting back in the same apartment struggling with a tad bit of deva ju, thankful for a incredibly painful broken leg (weeelllllll....) and everything God taught me in the last year about surrending who I want to be to be the person he created me to be.

And when the days are long and frustrating, lonely and cold, monotonous or crazily insane, I'll just remember the hugs and greetings from the Bulgarians and children here who's lives I get to be a part of everyday, and the family and friends I miss more than anything.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

D-Day

Tomorrow is the big day, and wow. I haven't felt such a mixed rush of emotions since my painfully eventful medical evacuation back to the US this past December when I explored the marvel that is laughing and crying... simultaneously. Over the last week or so I have been saying goodbye to so many people who mean the world to me, and a place I was so desperate to walk away from a year ago. One of the things I craved like never before as I sat in my freezing block apartment this fall was community, and for the first time in my life I feel like I have begun to it. No, it's not exactly what I picture "home" to be someday when I truly stumble upon it, but the familiarity and the fellowship the last couple months has filled a space in my life I have been trying to fill for some time now. I've reconnected with people from the past, spent "bonus" time with family, and established myself in an environment that has, personally, been stagnantly unprogressive since my arrival in my "adult" years. 

But here I go, on a wing and a prayer, ready to humble myself, and let the Master Potter have control of His clay again. It's going to be a wild ride - I don't seem to know how to live my life any other way - but with His help, I think I'm ready. 

Good bye everyone, but know "Kushtata na Katie" will be open for anyone who finds themselves in the Balkans in the next year and a half or so. I have a spare bedroom... errr... kitchen. With a bed. Very first class. 

Just don't ask me to go skiing. Won't happen. 

Monday, August 31, 2009

I'm going back!

I leave to head back to Bulgaria next Wednesday, and I'll be moving back to Samokov the following Tuesday.

Peace Corps Bulgaria TAKE 2!!

I'll be there until April 2011.

And I promise - no skiing.

:)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

When I left for Bulgaria a little more than a year ago, there was so much build up to my actual departure day. I had so many things I wanted to squeeze in before I left, people I wanted to see, things I needed to get done... but this time, well, since i may or may not leave in 2 and a half weeks (visa depending), it has been very hard to allow reality to set in. I still have people I want to see and things I want to do, but its very hard to squeeze them in when you don't know how much time you have. I'm not sure how long it will take them to know whether I can be on a plane on the 9th, but I could have any amount of time longer than that. All in all, this build up seems to be a bit on the anti-climactic side. But geez.... hardly more than two weeks and I could be gone again until summer 2011!

On a different note, but passport has worked itself out!! Even though I got accused of "failing to disclose" that I had lost two no-fee passports I never owned, and was threatened with "further investigation" or the answering of a "higher power" (all of which sounded a lot more scary on the phone, and only amounted to a headache in the passport office), turns out someone from the Peace Corps office retrieved my passport MONTHS ago (like, January 9) but never made a record of it and then misplaced it. But a woman who wasn't even a part of our conversation overheard what we were talking about as we looked for it in all these boxes and drawers, walked across the room, opened a random drawer, and there it was: with all of the PC staff passports. "Oh, you're not staff? That shouldn't have been in there!!"

No kidding!

Praise God it was found tho! Now onto the Visa....

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"If you weren't making an impact on the kingdom, then things wouldn't be so hard."
Pretty sure that is beginning to be my mantra. Sometimes I wonder (ok, a lot) why things have to be so hard, all the time. Yes, I understand that I really don't have anything to complain about. Nothing earth shattering ever happens (at least in retrospect that is true), but its the things that continue to pile up that really get to you.
In Bulgaria it was one thing after another (let's see, file a police report after an entirely too close of a call with a creep, a week later go back to the police station for follow up and have passport stolen -either in police station or in market on the way home, and then....), to the point where I culminated sitting on an airplane unshowered and unmedicated with a shattered lower leg and clothes many days old, and alternating between fits of laughter and a downpour of tears (no wonder no one talked to me except to give me that over the top look of sympathy).
For the last 8 months I have struggled with seeing the meaning of all this, and at least after co-directing last weeks extremely successful Bible Camp at my church (a record breaking 147 kids, 9 proffesions of faith, $700+ raised, 5 service projects, and SO much fun) I feel like I have accomplished something, but I still go through periods where I wonder, "what am I fighting for?" Should this all really be THIS hard?
The latest development - I jumped for joy yesterday when I handed over my passport to be expedited at the state department. "Success!!!"
I should have known better.
About 30 minutes ago I get a call saying, "since you have reported TWO passports stolen in the last few months, you will not be leaving the country any time soon, and will most likely have to answer to a higher authority."
Dangit.
I mean really. What is a higher authority anyway? Since I know God is not personifying himself through the State Department passport office (wouldnt that be nice....).....
And for the record, I only had one passport stolen. The new one was in the works when I broke my leg and was halted until last week when they said that it hadn't gotten far enough in the process to continue it. So start again. And now they think I lost two. But now I basically keep all important documents duct taped to my person. I learned my lesson. Pick pocketing CAN happen to you. But hopefully only once. But now I have to go speak to a "higher power" tomorrow. ?!?!?!? Ugh.
So now i go back down town to continue to fight the machine, and wonder how I lost a passport I never even owned in the first place. Good thing I'm local.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Something those from the Bulg will appreciate... and the rest of you will find ridiculously adorable.

I've been babysitting for a family from my church, and last week I decided to "teach" the girls a little bit of Bulgarian. 

After wowing them (and boosting my ego) with a couple sentences, I showed them how to write out the alphabet and then their names.

I wrote out Lauren's, and then she copied it. Then she wanted to see if she could write it herself without looking at my model.

In case you were wondering, Lauren spelled in Bulgarian is "mountain, "O," "P," "E," H."

Cutest thing ever.

----------------------

On a slightly unrelated note, things are moving a bit slower with the Peace Corps than I had originally forecasted. I received the clearance from my surgeon a couple weeks ago, but its been one struggle after another rounding up (or rerounding... ugh) all my medical paperwork. I believe everything is in the right hands now, so I just continue playing the waiting game. 

The clincher is that until I get the official clearance from Peace Corps (the PC docs have to agree with my dental and physical results from civ docs), we can't move forward with the official passport or visa. Once we can submit those, it has to be processed here in DC before getting sent to Bulgaria to be processed there (which may just take forever), then it will find its way back here. 

My goal is to be back by the B24 midservice conference near the end of September (midservice?!?!? I will have missed 8 out of the 14 months my team has been over there.... oh well) in order to reconnect with the guys I trained with.

I'm really looking forward to seeing everyone and getting back to work. My prayer at the moment is that things start to move a bit more smoothly and I can be on that plane sooner rather than later.

I have no hesitation that God is calling me to finish my service in bulgaria and continue to cultivate the friendships I was building over there, not to mention the time I can't wait to spend hanging out with my Svetlina kiddos. 

However, the longer I spend here at home, the more content I feel. Its taken me so long to feel adjusted to living back in the NOVA area, that its kind of unsettling that its time to leave again. 

But baby, if i ain't movin, i'm sure not standing still

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Looks like I'm going BACK!!

My surgeon released me from his care on Thursday, and the paperwork to get me back to Bulgaria in the next month and a half or so has been started!

Soooo much to do to get ready, but I'm thrilled that things have finally started moving forward again. :)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

It's been awhile since I've bothered to write anything on here. Maybe it's because I've officially been back in the United States for longer than I was actually a United States Peace Corps Volunteer in Bulgaria, and I find that ridiculously frustrating. Crazy, huh?

Part of me feels like I'll be waking up in my cozy block apartment in Samokov tomorrow as if nothing ever happened, and the other part of me feels like those 6 months there never even happened. And that's a horrible way to feel when I gave up so much (and am continuing to do so) to be there. But I'm still convinced that's where I am supposed to be. I just need to figure out the best way to incorporate "6 months of HEALING" into my resume, so the first ever hiatus on my academic/job record doesn't look and feel so scary.

The month and a half or so since my 2 week trip to Greece and Bulgaria and my doctor's appointment have yielded a fair amount of unexcitement. I've been babysitting here and there, trying to catch up with friends, and being relatively unproductive. No big changes in my medical status (next appointment – the BIG ONE… aka the determining factor on my return to Bulgaria – is July 16th), yet I haven't been authorized to really work yet. I am feeling pretty good for the most part, but my status with Peace Corps is in too much limbo to get a real job. Babysitting is picking up, and I have been able to reconnect with some old friends and make a few new ones, so even though it's the life I never thought I'd be living and prayerfully won't repeat, things have been ok.

The big news, is that I just got back from a week long vacation with my mom's dad and all his kids and grandkids (except Ryan and Becky – we missed you guys!). I am so not ashamed to say that the Disney Cruise was the best vacation I've ever had. Unlimited time with my little cuz crew, eating "out" at delicious onboard restaurants every night, drinks by the pool, amazing beaches, my first submarine ;), family time, and photo opps with Mickey, Goofy, and Chip & Dale. It was awesome.

And now, its home, to start working some more, helping to direct VBS this year, and distract myself enough from the eternal limbo I seem to have found myself in.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Great News!!

At my doctor's appointment yesterday (almost 5 months since the accident), my surgeon predicted that barring any unforeseen circumstances, he will probably clear me for service at my next visit in 8 weeks!!

Even to the untrained eye, my newest set of x-rays looked AMAZING. The huge gap that has existed since the surgery between a previously nonunion bone shard and my shin is almost entirely closed – huge progress since even the last appointment. He says at this point, I am probably close to 90% healed, and the other 10% will take some time since strengthening is such a huge part of the healing process. I impatiently waited for my doctor to leave the examining room so I could do a happy dance.

So, I've been in touch with the Peace Corps through email, and now I am waiting to hear if there is anything I can do now to start the reinstatement process back to my post, or if we need to wait until I get the official clearance in a couple months.

Regardless, my hope is to be back in Samokov by the end of September! And I'm thrilled. :)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Bulgaria!

The entire 7 days in Crete, not to mention a significant time before we even left the country, I spent in anxious anticipation about my brief return to Bulgaria. What if I couldn't remember any of the language? What if I realized that it wasn't where I was supposed to be for the next two years? What if it WAS where I want/am supposed to be, but the doctor deems my return impossible? I wasn't sure how people would react to our time there, being that I have officially been away from Samokov for longer than I served there.
When we landed at the airport in Sofia, I felt overwhelmed and nervous. More so than I thought I would...
But God worked in my heart incredibly quickly, and I have rarely felt as loved as I did throughout that week.
We spent the first couple of nights in Sofia hanging out with the American family that invited me over for holidays (yes, also the people who rescued me after my accident and let me camp out on their couch for a couple days!), and explored the capital a little bit. I got to catch up with some good friends, but the most encouraging part of the visit was stopping to grab some coffee with a few of my Peace Corps B-24 team members at Starbucks (yeah yeah, haha!) before my parents and I drove to Plovdiv for the night. Seeing as many volunteers as I did was a bit of a surprise, but it meant the world that so many were able to work out the timing and see me! Everyone tells you that your training groups will turn into your surrogate family for your time of service, and I can attest that it made my day to see them! They were so encouraging, and I loved hearing about their new projects and stories. Was definitely the beginning of a big heart change for me. At that point, I was still using the "IF I come back phrase" when I talked to them, but by the time we made it to my site in Samokov, things started to really come into focus.
We spent one night in the city of Plovdiv (very cool, very OLD city in south/central Bulgaria) where we ate some good food (and some not so good, ;P) and wandered around a bit to find the coliseaum and other arhaeological sites.
The next morning, we hopped in the car, got lost trying to find the road to Samokov - still don't know how we managed to miss it! - then finally headed over the mountain through Borovets and into my town. As soon as we parked the car in front of the basketball arena where I would go every other weekend or so to watch basketball games, I felt this huge relief. It felt SO GOOD and natural to take my parents to my apartment building, to point out my vegetable man (and my back up vegetable man) and various stores. We then drove through the town a bit and then got my parent's checked into their hotel.
Then we fell asleep.
All of the pent up anxiety hit me then! So we read and slept for awhile before meeting my two Bulgarian counterparts in the apartment for dinner. For the next few hours, we ate (sooo much food!), sipped on "domashna vino" (homemade wine), told stories, caught up, and LAUGHED. And wow, I haven't laughed that hard in a long time! The conversation ran so smoothly and everything was so natural, and my parents were beaming as we interacted with my "Bulgarian moms."
The next day we went to the Samokov market, satisfied my craving for Banitsa (a Bulgarian pastry with cheese and phyllo dough), and stocked up on goodies to take back to the US before heading over to the school to meet up with my kids.
As SOON as I walked into the schoolyard, I got a welcoming I had never expected: most of my core kids were outside in the school yard, and proceeded to charge at me and yell "Kaaatttiiieeeee." I got huge hugs, and then smiled on so proudly when they all introduced themselves to my parents IN ENGLISH!!! We went inside to talk to everyone, since happy birthday to one of my girls, have a guessing game about my parents (mom's in her 30s apparentls... and dad is 100!), and dole out American candy before dancing the Bulgarian horo and them playing outside with new footballs, frisbees, and basketballs that we had brought them.
Seeing these kids - MY KIDS - was definitely the last piece of the puzzle that helped remind me why I signed up for the Peace Corps in the first place, and why my heart broke when I had to leave so suddenly. I experienced a couple of months of frustration before my accident as I struggled to find my role, but being there again solidifyed it in my heart that I want to do what it takes to go back. And now I have a specific desire so I can pray discerningly, and I ask you do the same. :)

My beautiful Rila mountains, still covered in snow at the end of April! There was a good few inches on the ground in Samokov the morning we got there, but it quickly melted away in the Spring sun.


The kids were excited to teach my parents the Bulgarian horo, and were amazed when they already knew the step! They did cheat... its the same step they learned on Crete the week before! Shhhh, don't tell.


On our way back from Samokov, we stopped to see my host parents for a little "na gosti" in my training village. It was so great to see them! We ate a delicious Bulgarian meal, met all the new animal babies (including three day old kittens!), and then took a quick walking tour of Kraynitsi before before returning for coffee and saying our goodbyes. I was so glad it worked out to see them, and even more relieved that although my Bulgarian hasn't improved in the last 4 and a half months, I was still able to communicate clearly and translate for my parents.


Svetla and Kiril!
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Thursday, May 7, 2009

Beautiful Crete!

We have been home from vacation for a week already! It's funny, normally we spend a week at the beach somewhere, and it is NEVER enough time! This trip to Greece and Bulgaria was such a whirlwind, but I was soooo relieved to be home by the end of our 2 week excursion.
Exhaustion aside, though, the whole thing was absolutely incredible.
After THREE connecting flights to get there, we spent the first week on the island of Crete, and I have decided that it is a perfect vacation spot. For a girl who is torn between the side of her that wants to be a city girl and the side that wants to move to the mountains and own a goat, it is an ideal location. You have developed cities along the coastline, but as you travel inland or up into the mountains, you pass through tiny, beautiful villages (goats, good food, and all!).
We spent one day by the pool, but aside from that, most of the week was spent exploring local villages, taking drives, getting fed by the locals (yummmmm) and enjoying the beautiful country side.

The weather while we were there was extremely mild. I spent most of it in jeans and short sleeve tshirts, but enjoyed the occasional crisp breeze. The sun was ALWAYS out, but it was fun to see the snow capped mountains as we drove through the windy back roads.

I loved that the music and dancing native to Crete and Greece was so familiar after my time in Bulgaria. We attended the Cretan Meal and Entertainment our first night at the hotel, but on our day by the pool I was able to snap some better pictures of the dancing.

Although I probably shouldn't have pushed myself :), we SLOWLY hiked up to the cave where Zeus was born (its true!!), and immediately got offered a "taxi ride." I'll admit! It was very tempting!


We spent one evening out on the coast line sipping on drinks as the lone customer at a little tiki bar, patiently waiting for the sun to set over the coastal ridgeline. GORGEOUS!
More to come about the second leg on our trip to Bulgaria!
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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

For my Christmas present (a mere two days before my accident), my parents sent me a "gift certificate" for a week in Crete, Greece, followed by a few days as tour guide around my town in Samokov.

When everything changed after a few hours of skiing, it became apparent that I would no longer be in Bulgaria when this spring vacation arrived. Instead of canceling the trip altogether, we decided to hold out and see if I would be feeling well enough to still travel.

After a few months of frustration and waiting with bated breath, we leave for two weeks TODAY!

I never even got to go back to my apartment after the accident, so I sure didn't get to say goodbye to anyone. If I manage to heal 100% and return to my post within the next 9 months or so to finish my service with the Peace Corps, then my parents will have gotten to meet some of my friends, coworkers and children over there, and if God has other plans and ushers me in another direction, then at least they will have gotten to see a little bit of what I was blessed with for 5 and a half months.

No matter what, this is going to be a relaxing vacation complete with some more healing and family time, and a great chance to play tour guide with my parents in a country I miss desperately.

Hopefully, though, I will be able to remember enough Bulgarian to help my non-Bulgarian speaking parents and non-English speaking friends communicate on some level!

Довиждане за сега!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Camp Project for NGO Svetlina (Samokov, Bulgaria)

Dear friends and family,

    First of all, I want to thank you for your fervent prayer and support as I continue to heal after my skiing accident in late December. It breaks my heart that my work in Bulgaria with the United States Peace Corps was brought to such an abrupt end, and my hope is that even if my path does not lead back to Association Svetlina in Samokov, Bulgaria within the next year, I can still find a way to be a source of encouragement for the children and my Bulgarian and Peace Corps friends there.

    During my short time in the small Eastern European country of Bulgaria, I served as a youth development volunteer and focused on efforts of integration and empowerment among underrepresented youth from high-risk environments. More specifically, I was hosted by a progressive non-governmental organization run by two Bulgarian women with a heart for Roma/Gypsy youth. Each day after school, we lead English, art, and Bulgarian lessons, environmental appreciation activities, game days, and sporting endeavors. Many of the Roma youth drop out of school by the time they reach high school, and marry and start a family soon thereafter, and Association Svetlina encourages academic and social achievement while still aiming to preserve Roma culture.

    My biggest concern after my accident was that the staff at my organization would be unable, due to language barriers, to write the grant to receive funding for our yearly summer camp. "Camp Together We Can Do More," is run entirely by Association Svetlina, and breaches cultural road blocks by inviting equal numbers of Bulgarian and Roma youth to work, learn, and play together for ten days on the Black Sea. Summer camp is a relatively new idea in Bulgaria, not to mention the concept of integrating youths from both ethnic backgrounds is essentially unheard of, and I was greatly anticipating the opportunity to watch the walls of ethnic tension continue to crumble. Another volunteer from a neighboring village in Bulgaria had helped with Association Svetlina's summer camp last year, and she volunteered to assist with the grant writing process when I became unable.

    Even though I will not be able to assist directly with "Camp Together We Can Do More," I would like to do whatever I can to assist the children of Samokov in whatever capacity I am able. For now, this means extending to you the opportunity to become financially and prayerfully invested in this summer program by visiting the following website: https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=resources.donors.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=313-120

Donating through the Peace Corps website allows your contribution to go straight to supporting "Camp Together We Can Do More," and is tax-deductible. Thank you so much for supporting me so faithfully through your thoughts and prayers, but on behalf of the children and staff of Association Svetlina, thank you for your support of social development in Samokov and Bulgaria at large.


 

Katie Filkins
(On Behalf of NGO Svetlina)

Monday, April 6, 2009

Oh… and I'm driving. J

"Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn."
- CS Lewis -


 

A couple Sundays ago, I was able to steal a few moments of quality catch-up time with one of my favorite college students. I've known her for years, and have valued her friendship since we met towards the end of her freshman year of high school and my last, but over the last few years the physical distance between us has granted very few solid heart to heart conversations.

After walking into the fellowship service a few moments late, I found myself immensely distracted by the preceding chat.

It wasn't that we had discussed an earth shattering or especially thought provoking topic, yet her sheer honesty as she examined herself and commented on her own reactions and views on her world right now was absolutely incredible. We've always traded the "spot light" in our time together, but this time I just listened. And grew a bit jealous at her ability to be so genuine.

This is something I have struggled with for many, many years, especially when I work with youth. I fool myself into thinking that that my extra years (….) of experience and retrospect give me some leg up on life. Ha.

My heart has always gravitated towards arenas of service and ministry, and the recurring lesson I have always struggled to learn is not just to give, but to be ready and open to receive (and most often the intangible). Whether you are handing out sandwiches, scrubbing a floor with Brillo pads, or building intentional relationships, it's not always what you have to offer, but what you will take away from any particular exchange or experience.

As I listened to this beautiful girl talk, I envied her ability to just be HONEST.

Something I haven't done since my accident more than three months ago.

Every time I get approached at church by a loved one or curious individual, I put on the "happy face." The one that says I have everything under control and I'm doing ok. The one that since I laughed my way across the ocean with a broken leg won me the title of "trooper." The one that falsely reflects the courage, strength, and faith that people admire.

So maybe for the first time since I got home from my dream job, I'm going to be honest.

I'm terrified. I'm angry. I'm lonely. I'm restless. I'm frustrated. I'm hurting. I'm confused.

But you all knew this long before I did.


 

And I'm going to be ok.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Yesterday I snuck outside in between spontaneous rain showers and installed brand new, Hawaiin print seat covers into Pleakley in hopes that at my doctor's appointment today I will get the go ahead to get behind the wheel again!

Here's to hoping!

The good news is that my appointment a month ago went extremely well, and it was the first time I could abandon my every other week visit to my doctor's office to get xrays and a new "apparatus." A whole month has gone by since we began to see some improvement in my bone healing process(ok, WE didn't see anything… the trained expert did!), so the idea is that with the bone stimulator having a month to do its thing, and I'm most of the way weight baring, today should help us start (key word…) to pin down a timeline to when I can start seriously considering all of the ideas and decisions incessantly rolling around in this "big head" of mine!

Again, here's to hoping. J

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Today being a rather chilly exception, we have had some absolutely beautiful days here in Northern Virginia! I would give anything to get behind the wheel on a sunny day, roll down the windows of my neglected vehicle, turn on some Amos Lee or Dave Barnes, and spend the day watching my black lab chase tennis balls into the water as we walk along the canal trail in Great Falls.

But it's been 8 months now since I've gotten my hands on the steering wheel, and we're not quite there yet.


No telling when it will be, but I'll give fair warning when it's time to share the road with me again!

Friday, March 13, 2009

"Dreamin" by Amos Lee

My soul is as open as the sky.
Often time it's just as blue.
People tell me I need to keep on dreamin'.
That's just what I'm gonna do.

Now everybody wanna treat me like a house fly.
Turn me around and tell me to shoo.
Wanna tell me keep on dreamin'.
That's just what I'm gonna do.

'Cause every moral has a story.
Every hand needs a glow.
Sometimes it's full of glory.
Oh, but mostly, it's for the love.
It's the love... Mmm..

It's the love.
It's the love that pulls me through.
'Cause when they tell me keep on dreamin'.
Thats just what I'm, I'm gonna, thats just what I'm gonna do.



Saturday, March 7, 2009

For nine weeks, I have wanted nothing more than to feel 22 again.

I've been under this confliction of feeling absolutely ancient physically (down to even currently possessing - and sometimes using - a cane), while also seeming to have the life status of an early high schooler (one who can't even drive).

I went from extreme independence in Europe with my dream job, to this absolute uncertainty about when I will be able to live on my own or drive myself somewhere again.

Undoubtedly, I'm supposed to be learning some great lesson here… but other than the obvious one's involving patience and trust, I'm still at a loss. I'll keep you posted. :)

Anyway, I FINALLY have some good and encouraging news about my recovery!!

Since my injury, my leg hasn't showed any signs of healing. Normally, a non-union fracture is most common in life-long smokers, people of advanced age or individuals with osteoporosis, those suffering from extreme obesity, and people who have lived a sedentary lifestyle for years.

And then there is me. A 22 year old who was obviously active enough to break her leg skiing.

Go figure.

At any rate, at my doctor's appointment this week, my xrays finally indicated some new bone growth! Very little, so it will still be a lengthy recovery, but bone growth just the same! I left the doctor's office cast-less with a walking boot and permission to start bearing weight as soon as I was ready. I also received a bone stimulator device that should help my body heal itself faster.

So, I still have a long time of recovery ahead of me, but at least we are starting to head in the right direction!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Time to admit defeat… er… reality…

It's been a little under a month and a half since my dramatic and not-so-valiant return to the good ole US of A, and I think it is way past time to catch everyone up on the epic that is my life right now… utilizing a straight forward and to the point technique that we will call the "Reader's Digest Version" -

I am officially no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Ok, I guess I do owe a little more of an explanation… Right after I broke my leg and was sent home, I was given up to 45 days of medical evacuation status to recover and return to my post back in Bulgaria. When I went to my follow up appointment with my doctor 2 weeks after surgery, I was told that I had to go from putting 50% of my weight on my leg, to not being able to put ANY weight on my leg. Basically, (again, if you want the long, gory details – ASK) when my leg broke it splintered at the break site, so the main part of my leg is now secured with internal hardware, but there is a "shard" of bone that is not showing any signs of healing. I am back in a real cast and still on crutches, and hoping for some better answers this coming Wednesday. What all this means, though, is that when I back-pedaled on the prognosis, it meant I wouldn't be able to start physical therapy any time soon, thus definitely extending my recovery well past my allotted 45 days. So per protocol, Peace Corps had to go ahead and medically separate me not even 6 measly months into my dream job.

So, now I need to figure out what "Plan B" for my life is, considering it never even crossed my mind I might need one.

Contrary to popular belief, I'm not out to save the world, but I am on this earth to do what I can to change it, and this mandated couch surfing is driving me crazy!

But, it does mean I have PLENTY of time to figure out what my next adventure will be. (Silver lining?)


 

The worst part, though, is that not only is my dream of being a Peace Corps volunteer and working with my Samokov kids over, but at the end of the day, I STILL HAVE A BROKEN LEG!!

But even though my faith has been tested, my patience has dwindled, and my passion is in dire need of being reignited, I'm trying to trust that something better is coming.

It has to.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

1 Lift Ticket Up the Mountain = 1 broken leg & 1 Ticket back to the US

That's all it took… I am officially writing this from the comfort of my Fairfax, Virginia couch.

A week ago today (whoa – so much has happened in the last 7 days), I was out christening the beautiful Rila Mountains in which I live with a short day ski trip with my good Bulgarian friend and her family. We drove the less than half an hour to Maliovitsa where you can buy a lift ticket for about $4 for the entire day. I wasn't planning on skiing, just enjoying the gorgeous natural snow everywhere (I did go to college in NC the last four years… this amount of snow is more than just a foreign concept for me). I took one look at the snow-capped trees and the freshly powdered runs, and couldn't resist. Not to mention the fact that there were only two runs to choose from, and both of them very doable in my book.

Now, keep in mind… I am not the world's greatest skier, BUT, I am a comfortable skier and have been at least a dozen times without as much as bruising anything. The lifts in Maliovitsa are pole lifts, and you have to put the pole between your legs and allow it to drag you up the mountain without applying too much weight. I had no problem navigating the easy run, so after numerous runs, I gave the lift on the main run a try. No go. Walk of shame back down the mountain…

Eli and went for a walk through the beginning of the Rila National Park, and then I geared up to take one last run 15 minutes before the lifts closed.

They think the sun went down just enough to ice up the run a little bit.

Conditions were just different enough a couple hours later that right over the top of the run my right knee skidded out on some ice just enough to wrench it uncomfortably. The pain in my knee caused me to go down the rest of the way, where the bindings on my knee didn't separate.

I broke both my tibia and my fibula, and the bindings were so tight they actually had to remove my ski AND my boot in order to untwist my right leg.

Even longer story short, it took over an hour to actually get off the mountain, and another few hours to get back to the emergency hospital in Sofia. I spent the next two nights in Sofia with some American friends (SUCH a blessing!), then was on the first flight out on Monday morning. I flew Sofia to Amsterdam, then to Detroit, and finally to DC where a Peace Corps nurse was waiting to help me get straight to the hospital. Originally my surgery was scheduled for Wednesday, but after an x-ray that revealed my break was worse than anyone thought, they moved it up to Tuesday.

I now have a titanium rod holding my leg together, and am recovering at home in my parent's house.

I have 45 days of recovery to return to my post as simply a Medevac volunteer, but barring a miracle, the doctor is looking at more 3-6 months. I do have a year to apply to be reinstated back in my site in Bulgaria, but right now I am trying to patiently pray and await direction on what all this means, and if I really do have to make some big decisions here soon.


 

I wanted to let my "blog" world know that I am NOT in Bulgaria right now, but I am recovering and praying for direction. If you are in the Fairfax area, please let me know and come visit!