Ten-year-old Iliyana is in fourth grade, and although she has been volunteering since she was 7, this is her first national emergency. Gena Serkyova is 105 years old, and four grades is all the schooling most people in her generation ever got; this is her second pandemic, the first one being the Spanish flu of 1918.
What brought the two together was “The Power Is in Us,” a volunteering initiative in which middle and high school students delivered food and disinfectants to elderly individuals and families in need in remote villages in Karlovo Municipality. The students are volunteers with the Youth Information Center of Karlovo, an initiative of Karlovo Municipality and the Youth and Civil Initiatives in the Rose Valley Association, an organization promoting youth activism in Bulgaria’s Rose Valley region. The food packages were purchased with a grant from the United against COVID-19 Response Fund.
In Karlovo Municipality alone, United funding supplied food packages to 100 individuals in five villages and the town of Klisoura. Many of the aid recipients live alone and have a hard time moving around but are not covered by municipal aid programs. Mrs. Serkyova, for example, is cared for by her daughter-in-law, while others rely on neighbors or help hired by relatives living abroad. Transportation between the villages and Karlovo is limited, making basic foodstuffs and medicine difficult to come by, so aid recipients were touched by the gift and happy to welcome visitors.
“I can’t see or hear you very well, but I am happy to receive you,” Mrs. Serkyova told her young guests.
Twelve volunteers from the Karlovo Youth Center took part in the food deliveries with the help of local mayors and the association’s executive director, Mrs. Tsvetina Zaharlieva. The youngsters exchanged a few words with the people they visited, comforting them or, more often, getting comforted back.
“This shall pass, too. What’s important is that people care for each other,” 90-year-old Baba Stana from the village of Voynyagovo assured them.
“Through the project, we are keeping alive the volunteering spirit of young people, and we are also allowing them to leave their homes in a controlled way, in pairs, with their parents’ permission,” Mrs. Zaharlieva said. She added that many parents call in to thank them for involving their children and teaching them empathy and solidarity.
And it’s not just the parents who appreciate the opportunity. “I love getting involved because I want to help older people and anyone else who needs help,” Iliyana said.
The Karlovo drive taught the young volunteers an important lesson in honesty and goodwill. A number of people turned down the packages, echoing the words of a resident from the village of Bogdan: “Thank you for the help, but give this to someone with a greater need than mine—I manage.” Twelve additional families in the town of Klisoura received food and disinfectants as a result.
“The best outcome from the project and the publicity it received is that many young people got in touch asking to volunteer in future initiatives. Many people contacted us saying they wanted to help, too, by making a donation. So, our drive continues in June as well,” Mrs. Zaharlieva said.
The Youth and Civil Initiatives in the Rose Valley Association was founded in 2007 by young volunteering enthusiasts in partnership with Karlovo Municipality and Intellect Learning Center. The association promotes volunteering and philanthropy in the region, with a special focus on youth, and raises awareness of important issues such as intergenerational dialogue, environmental protection, gender and social equality, Holocaust remembrance, and respect for diversity. Over the years, the association has partnered with municipalities, local and international NGOs, embassies, and European Union institutions, allowing hundreds of youth to complete educational exchanges and participate in initiatives benefitting local communities.
The United against COVID-19 Response Fund was established by the Bulgarian Donors’ Forum, America for Bulgaria Foundation, US Embassy in Bulgaria, and American Chamber of Commerce in Bulgaria and works with the financial support of Bulgarian, American, and international businesses and individuals. Between March and May 2020, the fund supported 106 local initiatives reaching nearly 700,000 individuals across Bulgaria.