The Spirit of Christmas
By: Dylan Wilbanks
The mission to Bulgaria has always been in many ways its own reward. In our work here, the group, and you through our pictures and stories, are able to see very directly the great impact our contributions can make. We come, we take direction on projects that need to be completed so the children can be more comfortable or have a more enjoyable life, and we’ve done our best to complete them. We spend time with the children, hug them, listen to them, play with them, and we can see that we’re making them happy. If that were all, it would still be good, worthy work. It would still be a cause that is easy to support because the need is great and the impact is immediate and visible.
But tonight, I believe we have enjoyed the sweetest fruit of the efforts of the Bulgaria mission—specifically the decision to keep returning to Lom and its children and to foster relationships with them. Today’s entry is about a young man who makes us very proud.
Zoiko is someone the group met the very first year. Our Bulgaria mission is not the first to come to Lom. When he was younger, the orphanage had received assistance from another mission group within Europe. Through no fault of the children, the relationship soured, and the bitter feelings left Zoiko and others initially skeptical of our group. Probably justifiably so.
The first year, our group did not manage to make much of a connection with Zoiko. That was in 2007. The Bulgaria mission could have easily remained a one-year mission, with the attendees cherishing their memories of work well done, but never returning. Or the members could have looked for a different mission. Instead, they decided to remain dedicated to the children of Lom and to foster relationships that they had started to form. At this point, they certainly did not realize that they had started to form an important relationship with Zoiko. Over the following six consecutive years that our group returned, Zoiko became a great ally, organizer, translator, and friend to the people who attended. He was the one who would make the other children stop smoking for the week because he knew we didn’t approve. As someone who didn’t attend, his name is one that I heard repeatedly and recognized. Coming here, I was eager to meet the Amazing Zoiko. (I think that’s his stage name. He’s trained himself to be a magician—he’s been on Bulgaria’s Got Talent, which I do not think has been his only televised appearance.)
This year, I finally got to meet him. At twenty years old, he’s no longer a resident of the orphanage, but he took the week off of work to come help us and spend time with us. Tonight, he hosted us in his home for dessert. He lives in an apartment in Lom, and he baked a traditional Bulgarian pastry for us, which was delicious. Zoiko’s apartment was filled with photos from our missions, crafts he had made with members of the group in the past, and cards he had received from us. He also had many photos of the other children he grew up with in the orphanage.
We were all so proud to see Zoiko doing well, and we made sure he knew. He told us that after the first year and over the following years, his feelings toward our group changed. We helped him understand that there were things in life to work for, and that he could improve himself by working hard, and he started doing just that. He began taking jobs so that he could earn his own money to have his own things. He also earned so that he could give back. He told us he feels like our visits helped him come to this realization.
This past Christmas, Zoiko hosted the children of the orphanage at his apartment. Twenty-five of them, for forty-eight hours. His apartment is perfectly sized for one twenty-year-old, but it is difficult to imagine where they all stood, let alone slept. Zoiko told us that they stayed with him on the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth. During that time, Zoiko was working in Lom as Santa Claus (one of what I assume must be many side-gigs). When he came home, the children were celebrating so much and making so much noise that they could not hear him ring the doorbell and he couldn’t get in. Dressed as Santa Claus, he had to go outside and climb in the window. Thanks to Zoiko, the children of the orphanage had family to visit on Christmas.
My hope is that our mission inspired Zoiko through the years, and that by keeping faith with the children we’ve served as a good example for him. I also don’t want to take too much credit: Zoiko has worked very hard on his own and he has a big heart. I think we’re probably lucky to be part of his story. I hope that our relationship with Zoiko continues for many years to come because he definitely serves as a good example for us.
There are also other children from the orphanage who have gone out into the world and are doing well: Nyden, who works and lives in Sofia, whom we hope to see later this week; Radi, who lives and works in Lom and has come to visit us several times this week; Kiki, whose smiling face greets us at the hardware store where she works.
Seeing our alumni, knowing that they want to see us, and knowing that they’re entering the world doing well is an important reminder that the relationships we’re forming with the children in the orphanage and the group home are the Bulgaria mission. It makes me look forward to seeing where the kids we’re working with now might go.