How to Do Philanthropy Right — Oryahovo Style

The Oryahovo chitalishte today

In early 1936, more than half a century after Oryahovo’s chitalishte started its activities, hopes were high that it would finally get its own building. A chitalishte is a community center hosting cultural and educational events and workshops, and the thriving Danubian town’s population was eager to give a permanent home to one of its most important institutions. Hundreds of volunteers and donors had pitched in over the preceding decades, but the outpouring of support in 1936 was unprecedented: more people joined the donation drive for the chitalishte that year than in all previous years combined.

How did it all happen? An open call in a national daily appealed to locals’ civic pride: “Let us join efforts and finish what we started in order to prove we are good, conscientious, intelligent citizens… Know that every dollar is a nail, every ten—a wooden beam, and several hundred—a floor. Drop by drop is the water pot filled.”

Even though the Bulgarian economy was experiencing a downturn as a result of the global financial crisis of the 1930s, the funds raised were sufficient to complete the building. The residents of Oryahovo and the greater area pitched in, as did many residents of Sofia. (They were returning the favor: a quarter of a century earlier, the people of Oryahovo had been active in the donation campaign for the construction of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia.) Most of the funds came from small contributions from individual donors, ranging from fifty to several hundred Bulgarian levs.

The book A Window to Goodwill featuring a 1930s photo from the Oryahovo chitalishte

On December 31, 1936, Nadezhda 1871 Community Center opened its doors, and a New Year’s Eve party marked the occasion. The remarkable building was designed by Ivan Vasilyov and Dimitar Tsolov, the Oryahovo-born architects of the Bulgarian Central Bank building, the National Library, the restored St. Nedelya Church, and other iconic buildings in Sofia. The building’s grandness is a testament to the generosity of Oryahovo’s inhabitants.

Giving and altruism were an important part of life in Oryahovo and Bulgaria before 1944 and helped build many of the country’s major institutions, according to the book A Window to Goodwill, a chronicle of philanthropic initiatives in the Danubian city from the 1870s to the mid-twentieth century. Along with their support for culture, locals regularly donated to schools, churches, and Oryahovo’s history museum. They were particularly generous to poor families, the elderly, and disaster survivors. After the 1928 Chirpan Earthquake, which destroyed a large part of Southern Bulgaria and left thousands without shelter, the people of Oryahovo organized a large-scale aid campaign. All local institutions, businesses, and over 200 individual donors took part. Cash and food were donated by residents of many neighboring villages as well.

Ivan and Nevena Tomov, generous contributors to the Oryahovo chitalishte and other local causes

Oryahovo locals banded together to fight fires as well. The first Oryahovo fire brigade was created in 1927 and was made up entirely of volunteers. During the first years of its existence, the brigade was supported by citizen donations.

A Window to Goodwill tells many previously untold stories—of the hundreds of individuals who recorded their names in the history of philanthropy in Oryahovo. Together, these stories are proof that great things really do come to pass through the small gestures of many individuals.

A Window to Goodwill, compiled by Evgenia Naydenova, was published as part of the Donate to Make a Difference project of the June 1 Association with backing from the America for Bulgaria Foundation. Proceeds from the book’s sale will be donated to the Oryahovo Public Donation Fund in support of important local initiatives. The book can be purchased at the History Museum of Oryahovo.


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