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Love's Hope International
Reflections on Love's Hope International's recent trip to Bulgaria, as written by Co-Founder/Co-Director, Nicole

Dear Friends,

We are home from our trip to Bulgaria! Janet and I had every intention of writing from Bulgaria, but our days
were crammed full of traveling, orphanage tours, meeting with orphanage directors, and visiting with children.
By the time we got back to our hotel each night, we just collapsed into bed.

So, now we will try to give a synopsis of our journey...

Wednesday - We arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria this day... As the plane circled the airport, I looked out at the
country that I have grown to love... the birthplace of my youngest son (and Janet's daughter!)... It was a maze
of green fields and mountains, with quaint villages dotting the landscape. Between each city or village was a
single road connecting them to the next. I couldn't help but think how different this was than landing on an
airplane in America, where interstates, highways and other roads merge together in a sea of cement. Upon
landing, our Bulgaria Field Director, Violeta, met us. After exchanging hugs, we were off to our hotel - the Niky
Hotel (how appropriate!) We shared some coffee with Violeta and talked about the things we hoped to
accomplish on our trip. We also discussed general Bulgaria news such as: politics, the government and
international adoptions. Janet and I shared a quick dinner at the "Savage" restaurant (oh, how I had missed
the Shopska Salad!), munched on a Dunkin Donut for dessert and then went to sleep off the jet lag!

Thursday - We woke early and dined off of a typical Bulgaria breakfast consisting of yogurts, croissants,
breads, cheeses, eggs, meats, sausages, cucumbers, and tomatos. Then we hit the road! We were off to
Pleven, Bulgaria to visit with the orphanage director there. The ride took about 2 hours and wound us through
many villages and mountains (yes, through the actual mountain in tunnels!). Upon arriving in Pleven, we
searched for the orphanage. Janet was able to guide us to it because she had been there before - in 2006
while adopting her daughter. She remembered it well. We found the orphanage, amazingly, sitting in the
middle of the city - not removed to the side, on the outskirts of town as my son's had been. I don't know why
that surprised me.

Inside we encountered an old, but clean, orphanage, We waited for a few moments and then were shown in to
meet with the orphanage director. We explained who we were and how we wanted to help. The needs were so
great in Pleven... we were told it is one of the largest orphanages in Bulgaria with 260+ children residing there
- and this was only the 0-3 year old orphanage!! After the age of 3, they were sent on to the "older child"
orphanage in the city. One of the glaring factors that stood out to us was the orphanage director saying the
children under 1 year were sorely lacking in nutrition and vitamins due to a shortage of formulas. Because
they do not have enough formula to go around, they must dilute it in order to feed all the children that need it.
In watering it down, the nutrients are also watered down and the children don't receive what they need. We
had known we would do a Nutritional Program in Pleven and it was agreed the we will sponsor the Infant
Nutritional Program.

After this, the director agreed to allow us to tour the orphanage. First we went into the infant rooms - we went
into 3 or 4 rooms each consisting of 10 or so cribs with children anywhere from newborn to 12 months. We
were able to hold and play with the children and it struck me at how responsive and loving they were...
perhaps because they were still infants, yet untarnished by a childhood in an orphanage. Janet and I both felt
an urgency, like we were racing the clock, to save these children and get them the nutrition and help they
need before they get older.

One beautiful little girl captivated us in the first infant room and we asked about her. The director said her
parents had placed her in the orphanage because they couldn't afford to feed her or care for her. But they
were not willing to allow her to be adopted because they didn't want to be parted from her. So she was
resigned to a life in the orphanage.

Next we journeyed into the 2 and 3 year old wing... particularly poignant for Janet as we visited the rooms her
daughter had lived in during her 2 years at the orphanage. We stared through the glass windows at the rows of
sleeping toddlers and Janet pointed at the crib nearest the window. "That was Jessica's bed" she said to me
quietly. Another child was sleeping in it... one child lucky enough to find a family, a home... But another child
readily available to take her place. I stared at the sleeping little boy in "Jessica's bed" and thought how unfair it
all seems. We noticed in the far corner of the room, one lone child was awake, standing on his crib rails
rocking back and forth - comforting himself the best way he knew how.

As we left the Maternal Home of Pleven, we turned around for one last look. We saw the part of the orphanage
we had been in and realized it was one wing, just one wing, of a large, imposing, austere old building - with
many, many more wings branching from it, each wing holding more children behind its walls.

We went to lunch with Violeta and her husband. Then another car ride back to Sofia for the night. We arrived in
early evening and Janet and I grabbed another quick dinner at an Italian restaurant. We set off for a brisk
walk to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, but rain cut our walk short. So we went back to the hotel, watched a
little TV and fell quickly to sleep.

Friday - After another traditional Bulgarian breakfast, we started off for Buzovgrad. This time, our trip was
extended to a 3 hour drive. But we were thrilled to have Tony along for this ride. He is Violeta's nephew and a
good friend of ours. Both my family and Janet's had met him on previous trips to Bulgaria. In fact, he had been
Janet's translator on their first trip to Pleven when adopting Jessica.

We arrived in Buzovgrad mid-day. There to greet us were Gencho and Ella, two wonderful people who quickly
became our friends. They work with the Cedar Foundation, which is based in Bulgaria and does the same type
of humanitarian aid as Love's Hope.

We went inside and met the orphanage director, who was very warm and welcoming. She immediately gave us
a tour of the orphanage. It was composed of several buildings housing children of various ages and disabilities.
She told us the orphanage was mainly for children 0-3, most with disabilities but also some without. She said
many of the children with disabilities stayed beyond the age of 3, as this orphanage was the only one who
knew how to care for the children... or even cared about caring for the children.

We met beautiful little children who are healthy, and beautiful children with disabilities. We met a child whom
the orphanage director told us was dying of kidney failure. There was nothing to do but make death peaceful
when it came. We met Vanessa, a courageous 12 year old with a spinal condition that bends her backwards in
an unnatural position. We met Gloria, who despite her infirmities had an infectious grin that captivated us and
made us smile. We met Christo, who lay sleeping due to the illness he had. And we met Rusko, the child who
touched me the most - a child of 9 who was the size of a 3 year old... just laying there staring into our eyes,
skin so thin and pale that it was translucent, with beautiful big brown eyes. All the children seemed to implore
us to help.

We next toured the kitchens and washrooms, both in need of new machinery and equipment. One of the
greatest needs is new industrial washers and dryers so that the children can have clean clothes. We also were
taken to the back of the building where we saw the roof was badly in need of repair. They had repaired other
patches of the roof, but needed the rest of it repaired before November when the winter weather sets in and
snow falls upon the ground. We agreed with the orphanage director to help raise funds for these two needs.

After our tour we went to the upstairs baby rooms. There they were replacing the broken, rusted and worn
windows with brand new windows. Windows purchased by Love's Hope International, Inc.... Made possible by
our supporters. This would keep the heat, bugs, etc... out in the summer and keep the heat in and snow out
during the winter. The windows also are more energy efficient, allowing the orphanage to spend less money on
heating and cooling, and more money on important things, like feeding the children. We also were able to
donate two large bags filled with clothes, coats, shoes and hats for the children; nearly 200 toothbrushes from
a dentist in GA; and a bag filled with shampoos and lotions.

As we left the orphanage, there were about 8-10 toddler aged children outside playing. They were all Roma,
like my son Michael - the most discriminated against of the nationalities living in Bulgaria. But the orphanage
director was unbiased and called the kids over for some hugs and some of her chocolates (a rare treat!). They
went to savor their treats on a bench in front of the orphanage. As our car rolled away, we rolled down the
window and waved to the children. They smiled their chocolatey, sunshine grins and waved back.

We went to a restaurant in nearby Kazanlak - the New York Pub and Grille! As we dined, we discussed the
plight of the orphans and what we all could do to make a difference in their lives. We talked with Gencho and
Ella and realized that no matter what our nationalities, we were all working towards the same goal - helping the
children. We also met and talked with Cecily - an amazing American woman who is living in Kazanlak. She
goes daily to the Buzovgrad orphanage and works with the most disabled of the children. She is an inspiring
woman and we gained much insight from her. She agreed to help us with our efforts in Buzovgrad, as she is
already helping Gencho and Ella.

We traveled that evening to Stara Zagora, the hometown of Tony and Violeta. Janet and I walked around for
about an hour, then ate dinner (and had a scrumptious chocolate cake!!!) and went right up to bed.

Saturday - After breakfast, we debated whether or not to go to an older child orphanage, but as it would mean
more traveling and an unannounced visit, we decided not to go. We walked the city center of Stara Zagora and
saw the ancient Roman ruins still standing. We also did some souvenir shopping and then got back into the car
for the 3 hour ride back to Sofia that afternoon. Upon arriving in Sofia, Janet and I rested and then walked to
the National Cultural Palace - a place I'd become familiar with during my son's adoption. We bought some
prints from a local Bulgarian artist, watched children play in the square, and pantomimed with a mime imitating
a golden statue (I even have a picture with him!) These sites were so familiar to me as I spent so many other
visits walking in this area of Sofia. In a strange way, it felt somewhat like home - warm, happy and familiar.

We met Violeta and Tony for dinner and talked "business" - it was agreed that the best course of action is to
try and open a Bulgaria branch of "Love's Hope International, Inc" so that we can be recognized as an official
Bulgarian NGO, in addition to an American non-profit organization. This step isn't necessary, but the best route
to show our legitimacy and intentions to the Bulgarian government. So we will keep you posted on our status
as a Bulgarian branch.

Back at the hotel, it was time to say goodbye to our dear friends. We hugged them tight and promised to
return soon. Then we went upstairs and prepared for our flight home.

Sunday - We got up early because we knew we couldn't leave Bulgaria without seeing the Alexander Nevsky
Cathedral. As many times as Janet and I have been to it, we are always awestruck anew. We walked in, and
as it was Sunday, church services were going on. I lit two candles - one in memory of my father, the other in
memory of my best friend's husband. A peace stole over me, knowing they were both with God. We solemnly
watched the services, as people stood, prayed and came and went (people do not stay for entire services, but
come and go at will). After about 10 minutes, we quietly stole out of the church and into the bright sunshine.

We ate breakfast and walked the streets in front of the church that were lined with vendors selling their wares.
Then we hurried home, and off to the airport.

Two plane rides later, we were circling New York City. As the lights sparkled below us in the dark, we were so
glad to be home. But the faces of the children we met still haunt us. This is what keeps Love's Hope
International going, and what will keep Janet and I returning to Bulgaria again and again. Next time, we hope
to take many of you with us to help. We hope you will consider joining us.


Niki and Janet