It's Beth from England on blog duty today, so please forgive any British-isms y'all!
This morning we trekked up the hill to the group home, where the children from the old kindergarten home were also waiting for us. Thankfully we had come prepared with loom bands and playing cards, so we spent an hour or two playing, chatting, and fielding a thousand questions such as "Is Coca Cola the same in English?" from Loucho. Some of the group played a boisterous game of spoons outside. (No cutlery related injuries reported!) The goodbyes were hard, as they always are, but we've become fairly adept at trying to limit the tears, by making our move quickly. Thankfully we can always rely on Jennifer to be equipped with Kleenex, as it is not only the children who find it difficult.
David and Emily did an excellent job getting us across country to Belogradchik, a natural fortress rock formation, dodging enormous convoys of farm machinery. We met Nikolina, her family, and Katya at a restaurant overlooking the rocks, and had a delicious lunch with break-speed service. A slightly hairy drive later, and we were at the rocks, which some of the group had visited with Kris in 2007. It's absolutely stunning, with dramatically perched rocks forming a very convenient fortress. Nikolina's husband gave us an excellent history lesson, explaining the various empires and conquests in the fortress' past.
We got back in once piece, and had a wonderful final group dinner, with Adi, her daughter, Nikolina and her daughter, Zoiko, Katya, and Radi joining us. The little girls delighted and entertained us. It's been wonderful seeing our 'girls' grow into young women, caring for their own babies with patient love and affection.
Ten years of visiting our children in Lom have provided us with a lot of memories to reflect on during our last evening here. A few of us have shared memories of the various children after dinner, looking at old photos, and reminiscing.
We've seen so many changes in the way looked after children are cared for in Bulgaria. Whilst the orphanage was never an ideal environment, it improved dramatically over the years, with staff appearing more engaged and attentive each year. It was cleaner, brighter, and more suited to its purpose by the time it closed. The European Union has pushed for more children to be in group homes, providing something similar to a family environment, in an attempt to limit the extent to which children are institutionalised by their childhoods. Many of the youngest children have been adopted or fostered; ultimately our hope for all of the children.
We have worked with some amazingly patient, compassionate, and innovative people. The staff do a terrific job of caring for challenging children, with limited funds, and very little remuneration. We have been welcomed by the congregation of the Baptist church, and greeted every year as old friends. Various people from the town have dropped in to help us over the years.
This year would not have been possible without Steffi and Sammy, our gracious and patient mother and son duo, who translate for us at the group homes, in toy shops, and in restaurants. Steffi maintains contact with our children throughout the year, and I doubt that we'll ever really comprehend how much work she does on our behalf. She is an enormous blessing, and an amazing ambassador for Christ. She loves the children as much as we do. Sammy has a brilliant sense of humour and has inherited his mother's patience.
We've marvelled at the progress the children have made, despite their circumstances. We've seen many stories of perseverance and hard work; children who have learnt a trade, gone to university, or raised a family. Children who have been broken, angry and lost, now leading others, caring for themselves and helping others. Whilst we have been disappointed in the choices that some of them have made sometimes, we remember that they have grown up without parents or stable carers to advise them, or give them the safety net to make mistakes. They face decisions that we can only imagine, with little experience of the world outside Lom. We hope that we've made it clear that we are there for them no matter what. We are so proud of what all of them have accomplished. The goodbyes are so hard because our love for them is ten years strong, built on good times, challenging times, and a lifetime commitment. It's but a glimpse of how God loves them, and it comes to us naturally only because He's shown us how.