People-to-people contacts are the core foundation of what the Peace Corps is meant to do, says Lesley Duncan, country director of the US Peace Corps in Bulgaria.
Currently, there are 170 Peace Corps volunteers working in various areas of Bulgaria. Of these, 86 were undergoing training in the villages around Vratsa.
"The mission of the Peace Corps is threefold – the technical transfer of skills, with Americans working in partnership with Bulgarians, and that could be in the field of education, youth development or community development; the other two goals, which are equally important, are Americans learning about Bulgaria, this culture and this way of life; and Bulgarians learning about Americans, through that partnership."
Duncan says that the Peace Corps is successful only when those three goals are achieved, in combination.
For some volunteers, their engagement with Bulgarian life becomes very long-term: "We have many volunteers that stay on. Every group has at least two or three volunteers that marry a Bulgarian".
The latter, she says, arises partly from a question of demographics. "They’re a few years out of college, they’ve been here for two years, Bulgarians are lovely engaging people".
There are many volunteers that extend their terms for a third year, Duncan says. Some stay on privately, teaching or setting up small businesses, for instance.
"The connections that volunteers make, stay, because volunteers make themselves a part of the community."
Within the programme, she says, the technical transfer of skills takes place only when a relationship of trust is built.
"For all volunteer service, the first year is really about integrating into the community, perfecting their language skills, understanding what are the issues, the rhythms and concerns of the community, and the second year is really when volunteers really feel that the partnership starts to take off."
This is why many volunteers choose to extend for a third year because they feel that, when their second year comes to a close, they are just getting going.
While about 10 per cent extend their term, about 12 per cent leave the programme early.
Asked whether the background of volunteers – in the context of the United States’s own diversity – affects how they relate to the communities in which they work in Bulgaria, Duncan says that this is one of the transformative elements of Peace Corps service.
"Being someplace else, not only a different culture, but also small town-big town. Most of our volunteers have travelled before they come. This is not their first service opportunity."
Given that most colleges now have a service requirement, "most of our volunteers have years and years of volunteer activities, whether in the US or elsewhere".
Many volunteers previously have spent a year abroad in an exchange programme, or, for instance, "spent a summer digging ditches somewhere". Some have backgrounds with faith-based organisations.
"I would guess that for less than 10 per cent, this is their first time out of the country. Because that’s not who Peace Corps attracts. Peace Corps in general attracts people who are trying to further their service, their foreign experience, their language learning, their cultural insights. A relatively recent college grad, looking to do something interesting and meaningful and different from the choices they have in the US right after school."
Many go back to grad school after their Peace Corps service.
At the same time, about five per cent of volunteers are "Senior Volunteers" meaning that they are older than 50. "They’ve retired from somewhere, and always wanted to do service but couldn’t work in Peace Corps service earlier in their lives. So we have married couples, single people, who are here at the other end of their professional careers."
Asked about the process of deciding where and for how long projects proceed, Duncan says that there is a very capable Bulgarian programme staff that spends time identifying sites and working with volunteers as they go through their service.
"We don’t have a formal policy that we will be in a site for three generations of volunteers, for instance, but in general, it does take time for a community to work out how best to use a volunteer."
If the partnership is working well, usually a further generation will be sent.
"We have some sites that have five or six generations of volunteers, probably not in the exact same job, not always the English teacher; for example, it may start with an English teacher working with the local school, and then a transition, to working with youth development."
In turn, there are demographic shifts in Bulgaria itself, for example with members of local communities who move to major cities such as Sofia or Plovdiv or, in some cases, out of the country.
"Oftentimes, our counterparts, the ones that the volunteer works with, then move on."
The success of a partnership also depends on the vibrancy of the local community, for example where a mayor has initiative.
In the about 20 years that the Peace Corps has worked in Bulgaria, it has undergone changes too.
"We were some of the first Americans that Bulgarians had seen, we were one of the few that were speaking fluent Bulgarian and living out in the villages. Many things that the volunteers proposed were (in those times) new and different."
Now, Duncan says, "20 years later, Bulgarians have travelled, have brought back experiences where the outside world has changed what Bulgaria is, and so Americans might be working alongside a European volunteer, they might be working alongside very qualified Bulgarians.
"EU funding has changed the dynamic, too, in many places. It demands something different of our volunteers."
Bulgarians have changed, becoming more interactive; the number of people able to speak English has increased dramatically. "They’re open to new ideas, they’re dynamic and willing to try – our staff has noticed how we need to adapt as Bulgarians have changed and as their needs have changed."
Volunteers, she says, speak highly of the graciousness of Bulgarians, "of the warmth of a Bulgarian family connection".
"Again, that takes some time," Duncan says. "Once you’re within the circle, once you’ve made connections, this a very warm and friendly society."
Part of the people-to-people relations is the sharing of traditions.
From the side of the US people, there are – among others – celebrations such as Thanksgiving, Halloween, Valentines Day and, of course, July 4 Independence Day.
Interestingly, given the diversity of the US and by extension, of Peace Corps volunteers, this also extends to celebrations, for example, from the Jewish faith, of Kwanzaa among African-American volunteers. Choices are left up to the volunteers themselves, with the sole qualifier that celebrations should be within the communities they are serving – they do not have the choice to head for Sofia and an expatriate pub, for instance.
"It’s not dictated out of here, it’s up to volunteers. They’ll do Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, a traditional barbecue, chocolate-chip cookies – using local resources.
"This year, we were able to find pumpkin puree in major stores, but some of them get that sent, to make pumpkin pies."
The marshmallow has arrived. "Bulgaria’s changed in terms of what’s accessible, otherwise volunteers make do and substitute."