In the early 1990s, Paul and Judy Ridgway and their three sons had a comfortable life in a small town in East Tennessee. Paul was a university music professor, while Judy, a special education teacher, homeschooled their boys.
In a matter of weeks in 1994, from “a typical American family who had a big van and drove our kids and everybody else’s kids to soccer practice,” they became music missionaries in a country that was suspicious of them at first — and often sent policemen knocking on their door! Despite the frequent visa issues, power cuts, and water shortages they experienced throughout the 90s, they fell in love with Bulgaria and made it their home for the next three decades.
In that time, Paul and Judy have worked with every vulnerable group there is in the country: minorities, the poor, the sick, the unwanted. Touring the country and putting on concerts at churches and community centers in the 1990s gave them a firsthand experience of local communities’ problems. They felt called to do more for the underprivileged, and this led to the creation of Ridgway Ministries and the Ridgway – Bulgaria Foundation, headed by Paul, and Judy’s Bulgarian Child Foundation, which oversees education and training projects for at-risk individuals as well as the work of Borovtsi Learning Center.
Founded in 2009 with the support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and countless individuals, Borovtsi Learning Center offers housing and training to young men leaving institutional care. In ten years, the Center has helped nearly 150 individuals start independent lives.
Over three decades, the Ridgways have helped start six medical clinics and purchase equipment for others; provide training to hundreds of orphanage workers, special-needs parents, and at-risk individuals; administer 6,000 vaccines and over-the-counter medications to disadvantaged populations through the Healthy Child Project every year; and fund repairs and equipment purchases at various institutions across Bulgaria. To date, they have also given out more than 100,000 pairs of shoes and countless items of clothing to children and adults in need.
“Every time there was a need, we said yes, and what we needed came,” Judy says.
Because of the family’s wide-ranging activities, they started to be recognized by people in the streets and in shops. “We couldn’t go on vacation in Bulgaria because everywhere we went, somebody would know who we were,” Judy says, laughing.
This month, they are returning to the US after 27 years of caring for Bulgaria’s most disadvantaged individuals. We talked to them about their life and work here and about their plans for retirement.
America for Bulgaria Foundation: 27 years ago, Bulgaria became a home for the two of you and your three young boys. What drew you to this particular country?
Judy Ridgway: We were drawn to Eastern Europe, but we came through a mission board that would get requests from all around the world. We came because Paul is a music person. We were offered seven different places all over the world, from Morocco to Hong Kong, where they were looking for music missionaries. We looked at all of them, and I have to tell you that we put Bulgaria on the bottom. [laughs] We did this partly because they said they wanted a family that had preschoolers and not school-age children. Our kids were school age.
We put it on the bottom of the list, but we didn’t have any wonderful feelings about any of the rest of the countries. In most things we turn to prayer. So, every day we would take a country and pray about it and say, “Lord, if this is where you want us to go, then put it in our minds, in our hearts, give us some indication.” And every day nothing, nothing, nothing. So, we got down to Bulgaria. In our small little town in East Tennessee, there was a two-page spread in the local newspaper about Bulgaria. We had friends call us and say, “Well, we are going to go to Bulgaria this summer.” It was one thing after another. So, we said, “OK, we’ll go.” [laughs]
Paul Ridgway: We tried to get information about Bulgaria from the mission board and the couple that were already living here, and they kept telling us, “They don’t have a telephone, and we don’t have contact.” But all of a sudden, the mission board called to tell us that the couple was in the States for their daughter’s wedding, and they gave us a telephone number. And they said, “About the school age thing, we can work that out. If you can come, we will find something about education for your children.” We were with them for seven years.
Judy: Initially Bulgaria wouldn’t give us visas, so we came as language students [at the Ministry of Culture language school, ed.] — Paul and I, in our 40s! [laughs]
ABF: What did you expect your life in Bulgaria to be like, and what did it turn out to be?
Judy: We didn’t know what we were going to do and where we were going to live. We hadn’t even seen a picture of Bulgaria, I don’t think.
Paul: We did a lot of study as we could, books on Bulgaria, on life here. But they weren’t very favorable…. What really got us was that people were as uninformed about a lot of things as we were because of communist control [on information] here. They thought Bulgaria was much larger than it is, and that the US much smaller.
Judy: That first year was so difficult not just because of the visas and the language and having three kids that were not especially happy at first. When we first came, the power went out and was out for several days because the people before us had not paid the electric bill. Paul was trying to find a place to pay the electric bill. We had to go to a different place to pay the fine. And then you go to yet another place so they can get your electricity going again.
ABF: You toured the country extensively in your early years here, the mid-1990s. Any vivid memories you have of that time?
Judy: We were the first Americans to go to Chirpan. [laughs]
Paul: … and probably several other places.
Judy: People came to see an American family. It wasn’t just like an American, this was an American family. Sometimes people wanted to touch you, touch your clothes, just something to have a connection. Our poor kids… Zachary used to say, “I wish I could get taller faster so they can’t reach up and kiss me!”
Paul: Right on the mouth! [both laugh] Our kids were 6, 10, and 12… Once we were in the street in Sofia looking around, and there was chocolate milk there! I said, “Hey kids, here’s some chocolate milk. Why don’t we take it and have a little drink!” Well… it was boza! [both laugh] It was such a shock, and they never wanted to try boza again!
Judy: Our little Bulgarian grandchildren really like it though. They drink it here in the summer.
[Speaking of food] when we first came here, there wasn’t a grocery store big enough to push a cart in. There were all the small ones inside the “blocks” [apartment buildings, ed.]. But we learned: we’d go here and there, we’d go every day and take what we needed. And that was really different for me, too, because especially with the homeschooling and other activities, I had a freezer and a huge refrigerator at home, and we’d buy stuff and freeze it because it is really time-consuming to go every day in search of what you needed. But we were determined, we were committed to being here.
ABF: After you left the mission board in 2000, the two of you ran several projects in support of vulnerable communities across Bulgaria. You have made donations to or supported the work of nearly every social institution in the country. What are the kinds of things that tell you your efforts have been successful?
Judy: We tried to help people help other people. In that way, it’s a learning process. They gain skills. Like the women in a Roma village near Berkovitsa. I taught them to sew and built a workshop where they made pajamas for handicapped kids.
We have seen people in the communities where we have been start their own soup kitchens or their own social initiatives, without any backing from us or US sponsors. And that’s just really neat.
Paul: A great reward has been [to see the success of] two of the young men who were at Borovtsi Learning Center a few years ago, both of them named Ivan. One Ivan finished up there, and he eventually became the vegetable and fruit manager at a large BILLA store. He would tell us: “I learned so much about discipline, about doing a good job at Borovtsi.” And the other Ivan became a European Youth Volunteer, so he was sent to Portugal. Then he had a hairdressing shop, and then he went to Germany, studied at the university there. Ivan from Germany would come back to Bulgaria, usually every year or so, and he would get together with the other Ivan, and they’d call us up, we’d meet someplace, and they’d treat us. The last time they bought our meal, with dessert! We said, “Look, guys, let us pay for this.” They insisted, “No, this is on us.”
Judy: Ivan the fruit and vegetable manager is now in Germany. He has a good job there too. He would call me and tell me, “I am on time, and it’s hard getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning, and to get there and to get all that stuff done so early in the morning. They trust me. Here I am, a gypsy. They have offered me the job of manager. Can you believe that, me?” He was just overwhelmed that he had success. I said, “It’s because you have worked for it. You have been honest, they can trust you, you are on time, you do what you are supposed to do, and you’ve been good with the customers. You have worked for that success. No one has given that to you.”
I had another young man who was a European Youth Volunteer that went to Hungary to serve at orphanages. He was an orphan from the Learning Center, and he had that opportunity to be a European Youth Volunteer.
I hope that we have made an impact, not only on the ones that we directly touched, like in an orphanage or somewhere else, but on those that have seen that touch. When orphanage workers saw the teams of international volunteers come in and actually hold the baby and speak to it and sing, they were like, “Oh, we can do that.” I hope we have had an influence on the way people treat each other, with more kindness and with more respect, and simply to have an interest in who the other person is, what they are thinking, what they are feeling, what their dreams are. That’s an important part of who we are, trying to encourage people. I hope that we have been examples to others.
Five people who have worked for me have adopted Roma children. That’s huge. I can’t say that I was the influence on it, but I think that because they were around the Roma children in the orphanages, that it opened their hearts to them, and it opened their minds to the idea that this is a good thing. That’s what so rewarding – that so many people have been associated with the work of Bulgarian Child in the orphanages, and they have adopted Roma children.
ABF: You are leaving active duty, but you are not really retiring. Judy, you are planning to stay involved in the work of Bulgarian Child in an advisory capacity, correct?
Judy: Without American and other foreign connections, it is really hard to keep a facility that large going. We have been able to get funds together for the next several months, so it can operate without the stress of the finances hanging over them until there is time to write some programs, to develop their own fundraising materials and relationships with companies and with individuals. I am hoping this will buy them some time.
There are three or four Bulgarian families that donate substantial amounts to Bulgarian Child. Some of them do it in payment for the piano lessons Paul is giving their kids. They are free lessons, so this is as part of their thankfulness. And then there are some companies that have us on their list of places where their employees can donate money such as VMWare.
Paul: There is also AmazonSmile, so if you order through that, they will donate a certain amount to a charity of your choice.
ABF: Paul, what are your plans? What happens to Ridgway Ministries?
Paul: Ridgway Ministries and the Ridgway – Bulgaria Foundation will be dissolved. We are not going to be doing concerts… It’s one of the disappointments, but it’s the situation every place in the world.
One of the big things we were able to help get started were medical clinics in six of our Baptist churches around the country. Four of them are still active and, in a pandemic, they have had a lot to deal with. They will keep on functioning.
[The clinics started with] a couple in Texas who had a vision about starting a hospital in Bulgaria. We discouraged that idea and came up with the idea of social medical clinics, staffed by a doctor and a nurse, where people could come and get some treatment and medications. The clinic in Sandanski became very big. They have a laboratory that’s very well known in the community. It’s been a wonderful experience seeing literally hundreds of people come to these clinics. The other ones are in Dupnitsa, Kazanlak, and Varna.
Judy: The one in Varna has informational seminars on addiction, on stopping smoking, on understanding different types of diseases — diabetes, autism, dementia. Back when they started, people couldn’t get that information anywhere else. Even today, with the internet, it’s easier to talk to a person whose mother has that same thing as your mother does.
Paul: They also get out to some of the children’s homes and some of the centers for children with various physical, mental, and emotional problems, and they work with them and try to get equipment to help them. They are doing that as part of their overall approach.
Judy: We have been able to get standing frames for kids with cerebral palsy that cannot stand on their own, and for other diseases, and we have been able to distribute them. We have also been able to get hundreds of wheelchairs for children. They are decorated, they look spiffy, they are cute, they have bright colors and polka dots or racing things on them, to make them not like an old person’s wheelchair, but something really neat… We have been given many opportunities here.
ABF: Looking back on three decades of living in Bulgaria, what would you have done differently?
Judy: I would have started working in service earlier.
ABF: Do the Bulgarian language and culture form a big part of your family’s life? What are you going to do with it now that you will be back in an English-speaking country full-time?
Judy: We have three grandchildren that speak Bulgarian. All of our sons speak it. It’s been interesting: Zachary in San Antonio has run into several Bulgarians and uses every opportunity to meet up and speak Bulgarian with them. And he taught his little boy Bulgarian… This summer he spent a lot of time in bookstores buying books for himself and for Arthur. He reads Bulgarian poetry and sometimes asks some of his friends here about meanings of words or phrases. We can keep secrets now when we are back in the States! [laughs]
Paul: A few years ago, we learned about a Bulgarian evangelical church in Dallas. There are several Bulgarian evangelical churches in the States… We were in Dallas, and we learned about this particular church, and they had a service in the evening. We just showed up and had a great time with the folks.
Judy: We hope to come back. We hope to invite some people to come visit us. We have some wonderful friendships here.
ABF: What mementoes of Bulgaria — physical or non-physical — are you taking to the US with you?
Judy: We’ve got a daughter-in-law from here. [both laugh]
Paul: We’ve lots of pictures and memories, lots of special things, some gifts that we have received over the years.
Judy: The ladies in the church at Chiprovtsi made a big rug for us. They have their own sheep, they did their own carving of the wool, they dyed it all, and they made a huge rug for us.
Paul: It was in my office until a couple of weeks ago…
Judy: We are leaving with full hearts. Our hands may be empty, but our hearts are full.
ABF: You have worked with a lot of young Bulgarians. Do you have a message you’d like to share with the young generation today? What would you counsel them?
Paul: Two things. First of all, a quick passage from the Bible: “Remember your Creator in the times of your youth.” And the second thing is: get a good education and study and work seriously to build a better life.
Judy: I would say [to them] to have hopes, to nourish your dreams, and to work to achieve them. So many people give up so soon, and they live with disappointment every day because they didn’t try.
Paul: So many young people in Bulgaria are disheartened and discouraged by the political and the economic situation and are down on the country. Many of them want to leave the country, but there are good opportunities here in Bulgaria, and they can make a way. They can make the opportunities come to them.
Judy: The quality of life can be very, very good. The salary may not be as high, but the quality of life here can be wonderful… I wish for everyone faith, hope, and love.