When Amanda Mary first told me that she and her husband had 16 children between them, I drew a sharp intake of breath. When she told me she also runs a non-profit tourist office in Pamporovo and also works at the local children’s orphanage in Stoikite (in the Smolyan area in the heart of the Rhodope, 17 kilometres from Pamporovo), I was bowled over. The word "proactive" so beloved of employers, seemed almost an understatement. And if you consider that the subject in question, who also owns a hotel and has a real estate company, has also survived several strokes, then her achievement seems positively herculean.
Amanda, now 48, first visited Bulgaria in 1989, moving permanently in 2005 so she could supervise investments in the country. Although her involvement here is now more altruistic, Amanda does not see herself as a do-gooder. "I am here to try and help make a difference to the lives of the children who have been forgotten by the world and a failed system," she says.
Lost in translation
Amanda’s most recent illness, back at the end of January, actually triggered a serious misunderstanding among the emergency services and Bulgarian media. Her story even featured on the evening news.
Amanda’s daughter had dialled 112, an international emergency hotline number, after her mother began experiencing stroke-like symptoms. Bulgarian media initially reported that two British women were "lost" in the mountain near Pamporovo, citing information from the Interior Ministry regional police directorate in Smolyan.
In reality, however, Amanda’s daughter had actually made the emergency call from her home and the whole incident was a classic case of linguistic misunderstanding. The operator, who spoke no English, had disconnected the call three times. When her daughter finally got through to the emergency hotline again, she explained that her mother had suffered a stroke, and conveyed their true location.
No ambulance or paramedics arrived at the scene for 12 hours, when, reportedly, a "phone call got through" from a doctor asking "if he could assist". Amanda says she only survived because she received assistance from her husband, Douglas, who had medical training. "My muscles had gone on my left hand side, including my face. Douglas gave me oxygen and aspirin to thin down my blood very quickly," she said.
Although Amanda speaks Bulgarian, she was unable to call herself because she was temporarily paralysed. Thankfully, six weeks on, Amanda seems to be making a good recovery.
Given that Amanda was working a seven-day week, perhaps stress played a part in her stroke. During the week she works in a tourist office, advising people about everything from bus timetables to available accommodation – working with hoteliers on a non-profit basis – and providing callers with other invaluable assistance that nobody else in Bulgaria seems willing to provide. Truth is, any kind of tourist help, indeed rudimentary information, is woefully thin on the ground in Bulgaria, so making Amanda’s work indispensable.
Yet this is just the beginning of the story. On weekends Amanda is heavily involved in the Maxim Gorky orphanage in Stoikite, an institution housing 60 children between the ages of seven and 18, all of whom are there as wards of the court. And no one can accuse Amanda of failing to "walk the talk". Amanda has four children of her own but she and her husband (who has five children of his own) also have seven adopted children. Her oldest child is now 29 and her youngest is eight years old. They also have four grandchildren.
Perhaps Amanda’s experience of adoption stoked her interest in the Maxim Gorky home. Most of the children come from a Romany background; sadly they are largely ostracised by Bulgarian society. "The children are ridiculed daily and are not made welcome in local shops and cafes," Amanda says.
Like so many such institutions in Bulgaria, resources were desperately lacking. When Amanda first became involved, five years ago, the children had no boots or warm clothing so she bought 53 pairs of strong winter boots as well as coats, hats, gloves and four sets of clothing for all the children.
"We purchased toiletries, school bags and stationery for all the children. We also replaced broken windows in the institute. Last year, we raised 12 000 euro, enabling us to install separate toilets with doors and private shower blocks. We also paid for the upgrading of the heating system throughout the building," says Amanda who also helped to replace beds and refurbish some of the bedrooms.
Aside from basic shortages, the children desperately need understanding and attention. "What is really needed is time to spend interacting with these children. We want to teach the children a trade to help them get a job when they turn 18. We have paid for several activities for all of the children and we afforded a party for the children who graduated from eighth grade last year," Amanda says.
This orphanage houses children with criminal pasts include theft and prostitution, yet the crimes are usually instigated by the parents of the children. Even so – shockingly – Amanda says it is the youngsters who are punished. "This is particularly appalling, considering the age of these children," says Amanda. "There is a high incidence of runaway kids who are returned in one or two weeks by the police. When the children reach 18 they are released with no money, no life skills and no training to help find employment."
Small wonder then that some of the youngsters relapse into old habits. "One girl said to me: ‘There’s nothing wrong with prostitution. If I work as a prostitute I can pay my bills and won’t go to prison.’"
"I would like to guide the children so as to prevent criminal and anti-social behaviour and teach them life skills so that they can find employment after leaving this institute," says Amanda.
Maxim Gorky desperately needs more social workers and teachers for the children. In the past a Peace Corps volunteer worked at the orphanage, providing mentoring care to the children. Unfortunately, she returned to the US once her term ended.
Much still needs to be done. The children love skiing and have a ski run next to the orphanage. Amanda wants to provide the children with a ski instructor and a music programme as well as tuition in basic cooking skills, hygiene and safe sex. Also the children need to be taught a trade before they are ready to face the outside world.
"The orphanage badly needs complete renovation," says Amanda. "We have done our best with the funds we have raised, but 15 000 euro does not go far. We need toiletries for basic hygiene and stationery to help with education."
Amanda says she spends as much time as possible with the children, just listening and playing with them. She was appalled to discover that some of the staff actually beat the children. "What message does this send to this generation of children? If you are unhappy with a situation, just hit out? The staff needs to be re-educated; if the staff are not retrained, how can we help the children?"
Doubtless, that’s a message that will resonate with people familiar with institutionalised care in Bulgaria. Yet, as the story of the Mogilino children’s home reveals, there is hope for improvement provided more people like Amanda get involved.