United Fund: Modern Knights Wield Kindness, Not Spears

“Knights of Good,” a drawing by a sixth-grade class in Byala Slatina. “First June Association, your example is contagious!” it says.

When Covid-19 reached Bulgaria at the beginning of March this year, it was back to basics for the First June Association. They started out in 2002 providing direct support to at-risk children and their families; returning to that original mission was what was required of them now. The first cases of people infected with the virus were in nearby Lom Municipality, and it wouldn’t be long before the virus reached their own town, Byala Slatina, they reasoned. First June acted quickly to ensure the most vulnerable people in town and neighboring villages were prepared to meet the challenge.

Although state aid started trickling in as early as March, many were left out. Through its network and knowledge of the region, First June identified the neediest groups that would not be covered by state support programs. Many families living on the brink of poverty were pushed over it; the families of special-needs children were particularly hard hit. Through a grant from the United against COVID-19 Response Fund, the association provided packages of nonperishable food for two months to more than 200 families from 13 villages and the town of Byala Slatina.

The association’s staff also knew that the real medical front line in Byala Slatina was doctors’ practices and small medical centers, which saw patients daily throughout the state of emergency but were not eligible for the aid hospitals received. “General practitioners and specialists are the gateway to health care in Bulgaria and in our municipality in particular, yet they have trouble getting hold of disinfectants and protective equipment,” said First June’s executive director, Mrs. Natalia Kostadinova.

Mrs. Kostadinova delivers disinfectant to a local medical center

Byala Slatina region’s five medical centers, employing 35 doctors and medical staff, serve a population of 30,000. Every day, nearly 400 people get prescription updates or attend to other ailments there, making these centers a potential hotbed of infection. After all, the majority of those who get COVID-19 are asymptomatic and never find out that they have the virus, yet they can still pass it to others. The United grant helped First June address this need as well: they purchased disinfectants, face masks, and other personal protective equipment, distributing them among the five centers.

Although a large number of volunteers responded to their call, Mrs. Kostadinova and her deputy, Ivan Yankov, were personally involved in the food and PPE deliveries to the families and medical centers. “We really missed helping people directly… We have worked with thousands of people over the years and now we miss this contact,” Mrs. Kostadinova said.

The campaign brought back memories of the association’s early days, when the two had a lot more direct interaction with the beneficiaries of its work. At the time, the focus of the organization’s activities was special-needs youth, a fact reflected in the organization’s name: June First is International Children’s Day and a popular holiday in Bulgaria. They used the name of the all-children’s holiday for their work with vulnerable kids purposely: it reflected their belief that special-needs care and education had to be integrated into the mainstream. Thanks to the association’s work and advocacy for the rights of special-needs children, Byala Slatina became one of the first regions in Bulgaria to offer inclusive education in the early 2000s.

Mr. Ivan Yankov, First June Association

First June has since expanded its programs and activities to reflect the need for inclusive, sustainable solutions to the challenges experienced by vulnerable groups, but not just. Because of its commitment to inclusiveness, the organization broadened the scope of its work to involve children of all ages and circumstances as well as adults. In 2015, the association helped set up the Byala Slatina community fund, which determines local priorities in the area of childcare, education, and community wellness and fundraises on the community’s behalf. The fund awards small grants to local projects selected by an independent board. Over the next several years, the association assisted with establishment of community funds in nearby Oryahovo and Kozloduy, helping spur local giving there as well.

“There is always doubt in the beginning, so we are happy when we manage to overcome people’s doubts,” Mrs. Kostadinova said. Harder to overcome are people’s shrinking incomes in Bulgaria’s most economically disadvantaged region, yet First June has built a reputation for trustworthiness and understanding of the importance of community engagement. Over the past five years, local donors have contributed nearly 30,000 levs in support of local initiatives in Byala Slatina region. Two institutions even give regularly through payroll donations. “They support us because they see that it is worthwhile,” Mrs. Kostadinova said.

Once people get involved directly, they are more likely to do it again and commit financial support as well, Mr. Yankov explained, recalling how, a few years ago, some parents were helping install new outdoor play sets at a local preschool purchased with funding from the Byala Slatina community fund. “As they worked, a few of the parents would occasionally stop and look at the school’s rusty fence. In the end, a dad came to me and said, ‘Are you buying the paint or are we because we are repainting this!’” said Mr. Yankov.

There are challenges, of course, and many of them were exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak. “We continue working and, despite the difficulties, we keep on going and helping others. We are proud of the people we work with. Our region is famous for the fact that locals are more mistrustful, more closed, but there isn’t an organization where we haven’t found the right people to work with,” Mrs. Kostadinova said. “They are the reason we succeed.”

A play corner at the community center in Sokolare

Mrs. Kostadinova tends to play down the association’s contribution to that success. “Our community is small and tight-knit, and people are more willing to help each other out,” she said. While this undoubtedly helped, it was Mrs. Kostadinova and Mr. Yankov’s thoughtful leadership and unwavering commitment over two decades that galvanized the community to act as one and achieve more than they would as individuals.

“When we need help or advice, we always turn to Natalia,” said Boyka Mihaylova, a librarian at the community center in the village of Sokolare. First June funding helped them refurbish the children’s library and create a play corner, buy traditional costumes for the local choir, publish a book with traditional recipes, and erect a bronze statue of the village symbol, the hawk (sokol in Bulgarian). Mrs. Kostadinova and Mr. Yankov’s faith and support have also made the community center’s staff more ambitious: they are constantly working on new ideas and on the lookout for additional funding opportunities.

Mrs. Kostadinova and Mr. Yankov have become so well-known for the good they do in the region that they are sometimes called in emergencies far removed from their field of work. Sourcing shoes and clothes for poor children, providing temporary food support for families before state benefits kick in, helping rescue puppies find permanent homes—people turn to them for a wide variety of reasons, and they are never turned away. If they cannot help directly, Mrs. Kostadinova and Mr. Yankov at least try to point callers in the right direction.

Mrs. Kostadinova (third from the left), Mr. Yankov (third from the right), Lenko Lenkov from ABF (middle), and staff members from the community center in Sokolare pose in front of the village symbol, the hawk.

A gift First June received three years ago is a testament to their enduring impact and locals’ appreciation of their work. A sixth-grade class from a Byala Slatina school presented them with a drawing they made for the association’s fifteenth anniversary. The drawing depicts Mrs. Kostadinova and Mr. Yankov as knights, “Knights of Good,” and assures them: “Your example is contagious.”

The United against Covid-19 Fund works with the financial support of Bulgarian, American, and international businesses and individuals. It was founded by the Bulgarian Donors’ Forum, America for Bulgaria Foundation, US Embassy in Bulgaria, and American Chamber of Commerce in Bulgaria in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the country. Between March and May 2020, the fund provided funding to 106 local initiatives benefitting nearly 700,000 individuals across Bulgaria. 

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