Monday, December 8, 2008

A Bulgarian Journey

I had an experience in the summer of 2007 that added a new dimension to my life and my work. Early in that year, a client and friend invited me to begin an association with the Worldwide Orphans Foundation ( WWO is a non-profit organization that is headquartered on the east coast and has been developing a variety of wonderful programs to improve the life of orphans all over the world since 1997.

WWO asked me to design a new "nature play" area for the Mika e Dete orphanage in Pleven, Bulgaria where they had recently expanded their Early Intervention Program, which is nicknamed “The Granny Program”. The Granny Program provides a surrogate grandmother for children that are in serious crisis, and it provides income for the retired Bulgarian women who are hired as Grannies. They spend several hours a day in the orphanage, 5 days a week, nurturing two “grandchildren” for a year or more, and the results have been dramatic; children who are totally withdrawn emotionally and physically become cheerful, active, and healthier within a relatively short time, due to the tremendous power of the love and caring they are given. It is hard work that takes patience, and the 10 Grannies at the Mika e Dete orphanage were working with an additional challenge: no outdoor play area for the children.

The former playground had become a debris-strewn and abandoned woodland meadow, and all the play structures had been twice stolen (for the metal) during very hard economic times after the end of the Soviet Union. With no public parks close by either, the only outdoor experience possible with their surrogate grandchildren was walking down the city sidewalks. So the Grannies approached WWO with the request for an outdoor play area where they could spend quality time with the children.

There are 240 children in the orphanage, most in the age range of infancy to 3. The majority have been temporarily removed from the custody of their parents by the state and are not up for adoption. For these children, the orphanage is functioning as a foster care/social service agency with a goal of helping stabilize and reunite the families. Many of the children, even those who are not in severe crisis, are somewhat physically and/or emotionally delayed due to neglect, abuse, or severe poverty. Spending their lives indoors gives them little ability to develop a direct relationship with nature, and makes it very difficult to develop large motor skills and strength. This sad situation formed my basic design goals for the new nature play area:

• to give all the children a safe place to experience nature, and develop a meaningful relationship with birds, insects, and other creatures.

• to encourage imaginative free play that also helps them develop the physical skills of climbing, balance, and running.

• to provide a welcoming and comforting environment for time spent with their Granny or a caring staffer, and for the children to socialize with one another.

The design also provided some unique challenges for me. Since I had never visited the site, I would have to design the play area based only on photos of the site and some rough dimensions. In addition, I knew very little about Bulgaria! So my first step was to delve into research on its history, plants, people, and customs. This provided me with a lot of inspiration, as it is a fascinating part of the world, with a rich cultural heritage. I quickly realized that the former playground’s woodland meadow would be the perfect setting, as this region’s summers are very hot and all young children overheat easily in the sun. Also, many traditional Bulgarian stories, fairy tales, and songs take place in a woodland setting, with the trees, birds, and animals providing the delightful subjects. Since manufactured playground structures would likely be stolen again, my instinct for creating natural play features (which guide all my child-friendly garden designs) would come in handy. And so the ideas sprang forth… "fallen" logs to sit on, a portable swing that could be easily carried out by the Grannies, tree stump tables and stools, paths to guide kids into wandering through the woodland, a sandbox, comfortable seating for the Grannies, a place for performing songs and dances, and a pretend “creek” with wooden bridges crossing over it.

The plan also grew "wings" within WWO, and a few months later a dozen people from various parts of the USA had come forward to join the new Service Ranger program and volunteer to build the play area. So plans were made for me to travel to Pleven from July 21st-29th to coordinate the installation and lead the volunteer team. I was also asked to conduct some nature classes for slightly older children (5-7) from the Detelina orphanage, which is in another part of Pleven.

My first look at the site confirmed that it would indeed make a great play area for the children, despite the construction rubble scattered everywhere and the drought in the region which had caused most of the existing wildflowers to finish blooming early and dry up. I was also delighted to discover that orphanage staff had created a small vegetable garden in one corner, where they were growing peppers, tomatoes, and a few perennials. The WWO Service Ranger volunteers ranged in age from 9 to 74 and included several doctors, child psychologists, a professor, pastor, and graphic designer. But on the first day of work we were faced with the hottest day in Bulgaria in around 150 years. I’m glad I didn’t know that 45C is equal to 113F until that day was over. And believe it or not, the 90-95 degree days for the rest of the week seemed like a piece of cake!

The installation went well, with several orphanage staff pitching in to help with the clean up, materials delivery, and other tasks. Their good humor and hard work helped to further the spirit of camaraderie in the group. We expanded the vegetable garden and worked plenty of good compost into the soil so that staff and the Grannies could grow more food, cut flowers, and herbs with the kids. We used materials found on the site to create features for the play area: decorative concrete pavers made the foundation of a bench for the Grannies and steppingstones for the winding paths through the trees and open areas, and the previously cracked and dangerous concrete pad where the playground equip had been was patched and became an astroturf carpeted “stage” for playing, singing, and dancing. Also, the larger bricks and concrete rubble were used to create the edging for new, mounded beds where we transplanted native Roses. A colorfully-striped hammock became the portable swing. Tree rounds from a local woodlot became 4 “dining sets” of tables and stools, set here and there between the trees, and the native wildflowers and meadow grasses will spring back to life around them once it starts raining again.
After excavating what seemed like hundreds of pieces of brick and plaster out of a concrete-lined pit in the center of the space, we bought in a dump truck full of real ocean sand (seashells and all!) and set more “fallen logs” as the seats around the new sandbox edge. The existing narrow ditch that directed runoff to a drain was widened to be a meandering, shallow swale, dotted with river rock here and there to resemble a small stream. And when one of the orphanage staff built two wonderful, arched wooden bridges to set across it, I was inspired to give the garden the name of a song from my own childhood: “Over the River and Through the Woods to Grandmother’s House We Go”

Each day during the installation, I took a mid-day break to teach a nature class for several 5-7 yr olds visiting from the Detelina orphanage. I brought with me some nature coloring books that I had made, along with finger puppets and photos of birds, plants, and animals that are common to both Bulgaria and the Pacific NW. All were a big hit with the kids, who excitedly told me how they felt about these creatures and plants. We dug in the garden to plant seeds and bulbs, and explored the play area to find snail shells, a blue butterfly, a ladybug, and an amazing metallic-purple color beetle. Having no translator for most of the hours I spent with these children gave me the good fortune to experience that nature has its own language, which can be communicated and shared though pictures, pantomime, and many happy smiles of understanding. A photographer from the Pleven newspaper visited on the first day, and lo and behold we landed on the next cover page in full color. On the last morning, we were interviewed by a reporter from the Bulgarian National Radio.

Later the whole WWO Service Ranger team gathered with the Grannies, staff, orphanage director, and many of the resident children to have a celebration and garden parade. Having the new nature play area filled with happy and curious children, their hands and feet in the sand, lying in the hammock swing, scrambling over the bridges and having imaginary tea parties at the little tables, with Grannies and staff smiling down at them…. this was the best reward I could ask for...

My entire Bulgarian journal has been published on the Worldwide Orphans Foundation website ( at the “Share” link.

No comments: