BLENDING IN: Peace Corps volunteer Valerie Goode on arrival at her permanent site in the village of Bachevo.
A large group of mostly cherubic, fresh-faced volunteers flies in together from a faraway land. They disperse and merge into towns and villages where they beaver away anonymously, lone workers in a leaderless enterprise. A headquarters in Sofia monitors their activities. But our new arrivals seldom report back to base, choosing to live inconspicuously among their communities with the accent on integration.
The cynics among you need not get suspicious. Their motives are entirely benevolent.
I’m talking about the US Peace Corps, active in Bulgaria in 1991.
The US Peace Corps was founded in 1961 by president John F. Kennedy. As of 2008, more than 190 000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in more than 139 countries.
The first Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Bulgaria in 1991, shortly after the democratic changes. Since then, more than 1000 volunteers have served in more than 250 Bulgarian towns and villages where they serve as community development workers.
Their mission is typical of America’s role in the world - but one that is perhaps unfairly neglected - to help host communities and enforce those little changes that make a difference in society: the orphan whose English so improved that he won a scholarship to a university, the lifelong friendship between a Bulgarian baba and a volunteer, the bond between a humble farmer - who had never left Bulgaria - and an affluent New Yorker.
Volunteers undergo 10 weeks of intensive training when they arrive, studying the Bulgarian language and learning customs and culture. Most volunteers are young, aged between 25 and 27, although there are also a few middle-aged volunteers. Currently, 120 Peace Corps activists work in Bulgaria, the most recent batch containing 62 volunteers.
Volunteers work with municipalities in small communities, mainly in education, teaching English in primary and secondary school as well as working in orphanages and community and organisational development. They receive an allowance for clothes and food but they live on subsistence level with the idea that they should experience Bulgarian life first-hand.
Few drop out after the training, although as Nadia Staneva, training assistant for Peace Corps Bulgaria says, if they have reservations it’s better they drop out at the induction stage before they integrate into the community. "They have to be able to accept cultural differences between Bulgaria and the US, such as attitudes towards time and agenda. Successful volunteers take the best from both models. They create a realistic image of the best of America. It’s easy to become trapped in stereotypes, something the presence of real people helps to dispel."
Peace Corps activists in America do not choose their ultimate destination but they can - for example - express a preference for Eastern Europe, a choice that could lead them to Bulgaria.
For most their mission ends after two years but for others, such as former Peace Corps volunteer Lincoln Frager, who went on to form the Cedar Foundation, a charitable organisation that helps disadvantaged youngsters, the mission is ongoing and the beginning of a lifelong love affair with Bulgaria.