Rotarians help bring relief to poor of Bulgaria with supply run

Aid collected by Rotarians arrives at the Bulgarian distribution centre
Aid collected by Rotarians arrives at the Bulgarian distribution centre

Market Rasen Rotarians have been busy continuing their international work by helping dispatch aid to the poor of Bulgaria.

Ray Pearson, Richard Lewis, Peter Robinson, Mark Strawson, Andrew Dalrymple and Tony Maund, together with some helpful associates, helped fill the most recent container destined for Bulgaria, using a warehouse and facilities on the old Binbrook aerodrome.

Twenty pallets of food, as well as 550 boxes packed with medical supplies, more than 1,000 nurses’ uniforms, clothing, toys, walking aids, zimmer-frames, walking sticks and arm crutches, together with overbed tables and a phlebotomy chair were loaded into the container.

The Rasen Club was working with the charity ‘Bulgarian Aid,’ set up after response to an appeal for help by Bulgarian Rotarians at a Rotary Conference in Greece in 1996.

Rotary was just being revived in Bulgaria after the changes from Communism, under which Rotary was banned.

At that time, there were six Rotary Clubs, now this has grown to 86 clubs, with 37 Rotaract Clubs and 26 Interact Clubs.

Food aid being loaded at the former Binbrook airbase

Food aid being loaded at the former Binbrook airbase

Rotarians Mike and Christine Dagwell visited two orphanages in Rouse, on the Danube in the north of Bulgaria - one for boys and one for girls, with 80 children in each.

The girls orphanage was in a large house, very overcrowded, and the boys in a purpose built concrete building, very institutional and cold.

When the group assembled in the entrance hall, having looked around and already determined they must help, Christine asked the boys, ‘What would you like us to send you’? The answer ‘something to eat’ changed the lives of Christine and Mike.

Food was immediately bought and then arrangements made for more to be sent through the Rotary Club they were associated with in Greece, and Christine came home with the idea of having warm sweaters knitted for each child and taking them back in the spring.

Then the idea grew and snowballed.

In the spring it was a big white van; 10 cubic metres of all kinds of goods - clothing, food, blankets etc.

The next year it was a lorry load and since then containers have been sent, sometimes more than one a year, as this is the safest and easiest way.

Then Christine and Mike were asked to help a babies orphanage, then homes for old people...and for 17 years their charity has worked, with the assistance of Rotary clubs in Bulgaria, to help orphans, disabled people and the elderly.

Sadly, Mike died in 2002 but the work continued and all kinds of humanitarian aid continued to be personally delivered - baby clothes, toys and prams, refurbished computers for schools all over Bulgaria, clothing, bedding and waterproof mattresses for the elderly in homes, aids for the disabled and medical equipment and consumables for the hospitals, along with many containers full of bed linen.

The bed linen came from hospitals on the north and south banks of the Humber when they changed from providing linen services in house to hiring linen for the hospitals. It was destined to be destroyed.

Over the years the needs have changed; the large orphanages are being closed and children housed in smaller homes and the homes for the elderly have improved.

But three years ago, a great need was identified amongst elderly people.

Most of them women, widows, had worked all their lives but now found themselves in need.

Usually they live alone in a two-roomed flat in a concrete block, they have to pay rent, water and electricity bills every month or they are ‘cut off’.

Their pensions are very small, commonly in the region of 150 lev (£65) a month.

As Christine, and now her new husband Christopher Thompson, travelled over there and lived there for weeks at a time, shopping in the markets, they were very aware of the price of foodstuffs.

These elderly people have no chance of supplementing their income and are only living on bread and yoghurt.

A decision was made to concentrate on helping them.

On their last trip in May, 1,500 food parcels were personally distributed to vulnerable needy people, plus some food was given to homes for the elderly and disabled.

This latest container was destined to arrive in Varna on the Friday prior to Christmas and was unloaded in the warehouse of a Rotarian in the Varna Euxinograd Club.

Christine and her husband, a member of the RC of Hull, flew out and stayed for two weeks to distribute everything personally and safely.

The medical supplies were donated to the hospice and home at Provadia, who were absolutely delighted with the two overbed tables, and two hospitals in Varna.

The doctors in charge examined everything and made sure they each got what was appropriate for their hospitals and commonly used items were equally shared.

Some of the food was assigned to a scheme that helps 150 elderly ladies with whom the charity has worked before.

The organisation do a wonderful job of keeping the spirits of the old ladies up - they have a choir, hold craft classes every day and arrange outings. This scheme is funded by the women in business in Varna.

Some went to a hospice and home for the elderly and some to a Home for the disabled in Provadia, about 40 miles from Varna. That’s another story, but suffice to say 70 disabled people are housed in the old offices of a former bus station, with one toilet and one shower on each floor, for 35 people. The ones upstairs cannot come down because there is no lift or ramp and they are all in wheelchairs.

The Rotarians in Varna told the visitors that since they were there in June several schemes have started up that provide hot meals each day for vulnerable people. These schemes were desperate for donations of food.

When Christine and Christopher arrived at the first soup kitchen there were 500 people, mostly elderly, waiting in the bitter cold weather. Some of them had been there for two hours; they had seen the donation being delivered and decided to wait.

During that afternoon, each one of the 500 received a food parcel - dry foods like spaghetti and packet soups, tinned fish, vegetables, cereals, long life milk and some ‘treats’ like biscuits or chocolate bars.

They were all very grateful and the volunteers at the scheme gave heartfelt thanks, saying the donation must have been ‘heaven sent’ because until they heard about the donation they had no idea how they were going to provide any food for Christmas Day and Boxing Day to the 800 people registered with them.

Another scheme, at St Michael’s church in Varna, provides food at the weekends. This scheme also received a donation. Christine and Christopher went along to witness 150 people, again mostly elderly, queuing up for a yoghurt carton of good vegetable soup, a small loaf of bread and a carton of yoghurt, Most of them consumed the soup and bread immediately standing near tables in the church garden, taking the yoghurt home for later.

An organisation that takes meals to housebound people, St Andrew’s, was also helped, together with a day centre that cares for 40 disabled young people every day, giving them lunch and tea before they go home.

The visit there was quite a happy one. The young people danced and sang in a little show for the visitors and had also made a picture, with a snowman, a Christmas tree and Father Christmas on; every child had contributed something to the picture.

It was a very different Christmas for Christine and Christopher but they say it was a very fulfilling one.

At the same time, the gratitude of all the recipients was humbling.

“They were grateful for so little in comparison with what we have in Britain, it makes you want to help them again,” said Christine.

“The helpers are not well-off by our standards, but are working to help those less fortunate.”

Judging by the emails received from Varna, the need is becoming even greater so when Christine and Christopher return home they will be trying to raise funds for another shipment.

The food is obtained from a charity Hisfood who are based at Binbrook; manufacturers and supermarkets channel their ‘excess’ food through this charity.

A donation is made to Hisfood for handling. So the 20 pallets of high quality food, plus the carriage of the container, usually around £2,700, as the Bulgarian port charges are also paid, costs approximately £5,700 – but the food is worth maybe ten times more than that. The hope it brings is incalculable.

So Bulgarian Aid is committed to sending another container of food aid as soon as possible and will welcome offers of help.

Christine, who is a member of the Rotary Club of Howden in the same district as the RC of Market Rasen, can be contacted with offers of help, or with questions at: