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The Bulgarian Woolly Project PDF Printable Version E-mail


The Bulgarian Woolly Project

Barry and Margaret Williamson

Updated December 2010


As long ago asBG_Woollies_(3).JPG April 1987, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev first presented his concept of "Our Common European Home", on a visit to what was then Czechoslovakia. Twenty-three years later there are still rooms in our Home of which we should be ashamed. In the West Wing of the Home, we live in centrally-heated, fully-insulated, double-glazed, wall-to-wall-carpeted, over-fed, secure luxury. In the East Wing, far too many children live like the ones in Alexa and Greg's graphic images. Let's help move a few of our excess resources out east!

The Project Begins

Barbara Hurley, who lives near Cardiff in Wales, wrote to us following Preslav_Orphanage_(16).JPGour 3-month stay in south-eastern Bulgaria in the summer of 2008. She was knitting woollen hats and gloves for babies and young children and was looking for cold and needy heads and hands. She had come to the right place.

Although we had just left Bulgaria, we were able to put Barbara in touch with two good friends there: Carol in Biser and Ruth in Hlyabovo. Both immediately agreed to distribute woollies to deprived Bulgarian and Roma children, as the hot dry summer turned into the deep frosts of winter. Temperatures as low as -20 C (-4 F) are not unknown.

To see all the photos of the Project, click: The Boxes and the Children

The Project Grows

From this simplePreslav_Orphanage_(17).JPG starting point, Barbara has extended her knitting to include other woollen clothing and soft toys. Her friends and relatives have gathered round to help with collection, knitting, packing and posting.

Carol has distributed clothing and toys in her large agricultural village, including numerous children in the Roma quarter. Carol also enlisted the support of Yanka, a teacher at the Biser school, and a Bulgarian Orthodox priest in the nearby town of Harmanli, who are both doing very good work among children and babies, some of them orphans.

Ruth helped a number of children at the kindergarten in her village and also put Barbara in touch with 2 American Peace Corps volunteers: Kelsey, working with young people in the town of Topolovgrad, and Alexa in Pishtigovo, a small village near Pazardzhik. Alexa is working with the local school and has distributed clothing to the poorest children.

The only problem in this otherwise smooth-flowing project has been the post. BG_Woollies_(4).JPGBarbara found that there was a sharp increase in the cost of postage for boxes weighing more than 2 kg, and postal rates continue to rise. We were all concerned that the boxes arrived safely at reliable Bulgarian addresses. Barbara has the correct postal addresses for all team members, translated from the Cyrillic alphabet. So far, all the parcels have arrived, despite some delay over the Christmas period.

We continue to help as best we can, by circulating information about the project and by contributing to the cost of the postage. After a winter in Greece, hibernating in the southern Peloponnese, we returned to Bulgaria in April 2009 to visit those friends already involved in the project and to establish some new contacts. We have now widened the team to include Greg, another US Peace Corps volunteer based at an orphanage in Veliki Preslav, and Matt at Sakar Hills Camping in Biser, who has made links with a children's home in Svilengrad.   

It is hoped that Barbara, with her husband Joe or with a friend, can visit Bulgaria later in the autumn of 2009, bringing with her a baggage-allowance worth of clothes and toys, as well as other essentials such as toiletries etc.


Updated by Margaret Williamson in December 2010

Here is some information about the members of the Bulgarian Woolly Project team. Please email the most appropriate member if you would like to help in some way - in the West or in Bulgaria, or both.


Barbara Hurley (Babs & Joe)

Cardiff, South Wales. Email:

Babs wrote to Babs_Box_1.JPGus following our 3-month stay in south-eastern Bulgaria in the summer of 2008. She was knitting woollies for babies and young children and wanted contacts in Bulgaria. A dedicated voluntary worker, she also helps homeless children at a hostel in Suffolk, raises money for the Alzheimer Society and helps at her local Red Cross Charity Shop. 

Although we had just left Bulgaria, we Babs_Box_2.JPGwere able to put Barbara in touch with two good friends there: Carol in Biser and Ruth in Hlyabovo. Both immediately agreed to distribute woollies to deprived Bulgarian and Roma children, working through school, kindergarten and church. Ruth knew Kelsey, who knew Alexa, and so the network grew. Babs has sent several boxes to all four and more will follow.

Friends and relatives have helped with knitting colourful hats, scarves and mittens, as well as donating wool, warm tights, soft toys etc. Babs is also collecting exercise books, note pads, pencils, crayons, rubbers, pencil sharpeners, jigsaw puzzles, simple books and flash cards for the schools. She aims to make her own visit to Bulgaria later in 2009.

Linda Hedley

Berkshire, England. Email:

At Christmas Linda_Box.JPG2008 Linda contacted Babs about helping the children at a hostel for the homeless in Suffolk, and so she heard about the orphans and needy children in Bulgaria. Linda, who worked as a child-minder for many years, loves knitting and had been trying to find somewhere to send hand-knitted items. The Woolly Project had a valuable new member.

In the New Year Linda sent two parcels to Bulgaria, for Alexa and Carol, with hats, gloves, mittens, pens, pencils, notebooks and tooth brushes. More has followed, as Linda continues to make jumpers with wool donated by her sister. She is also collecting writing and drawing items and soft toys.

Shirley Page

Suffolk, England. Email:

Shirley runs the hostel for the homeless, with which Babs (and now also Linda) are involved. She has joined them in gathering and sending much needed clothes and gifts to the children in Bulgaria. 

Margaret & Barry Williamson (Usually on the Road but sometimes at Number 1 on the Maps of Bulgari)

Currently (December 2010) in Bulgaria.  Contact Us by Clicking Here!

We have been travelling full-time for the last 16 years, mainly in Europe by motorhome and bicycle, but including 3 round-the-world journeys, each lasting 12 months. We first travelled in Bulgaria in the summer of 1989 (at the time of the 'former regime') as we cycled from the UK to Istanbul. We have been to Bulgaria several times since, including a stay in Biser for 3 months in the summer of 2008, returning in April/May 2009 and November/December 2010.  




Pastors Irene and Gerard Hurst in Bryagovo Village


New to the project during our visit to Biser in December 2010, the Reverends Irene and Gerard Hurst (both fully ordained English Pastors ), live in Bryagovo village between Harmanli and Haskovo in SE Bulgaria. Over the last 4 years they've restored their house and converted the barn into a chapel. They hold services here for the poorest in their village, supporting them in many ways, with meetings followed by refreshments, teaching the children to read, handing out children's clothes, Christmas parcels and so on. We are keen to support their excellent work, which is entirely voluntary and at their own expense.

Carol Finnigan in Biser village (Number 1 on theMaps)


Carol and her partner John have played a key role in distributing clothes, toys and stationery, sent from the UK by Babs and Linda, to children in Biser and at the school. Living in the heart of the village, they know the local people well and are aware of where the greatest need lies. In our latest visit, December 2010, we also brought out some warm winter blankets and bed linen, which Carol took to the poorest families  

Matt Jeffes, Sakar Hills Camping, Biser (Number 1 on the Maps)

Email:    www.sakar-hills.com

Sakar Hills Camping, 2 Georgi Rakovsky Street, Biser, 6470 HARMANLI, BULGARIA

Phone: +359 887 221380

Matt is the resident manager of the excellent little campsite owned by his parents in the village of Biser. We used Sakar Hills as a base during each of our visits in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Svilengrad Internat (Number 5 on the Maps)

Matt and his BulgaSvilengrad_(26).JPGrian partner, Magdalena, have made contact with an 'Internat' (residential children's school for mentally handicapped children aged 6-18) in the town of Svilengrad, 15 miles from Biser near the Turkish border. They accompanied us to visit it and interview the Director, who does not speak English (see full report of 12 May 2009). By chance, and at only 2-days' notice, motorhomer Patricia Tribelhorn turned up on 15 May 2009 at Sakar Hills Camping. She had with her a generous amount of clothes, toys and school material, so Matt and Magdalena took her to the 'Internat' to deliver some supplies there.

Matt and Magdalena (seen right with the Director) later organizedSvilengrad_(21).JPG an interview with the Svilengrad newspaper. This included an appeal for support and donations to the 'Internat' from local people. Much more needs to be done to involve local communities in the work of children's homes and orphanages.

Biser School (Number 1 on the Maps)

Matt and Magdalena also took us into the kindergarten and school (named after the Bulgarian revolutionary poet Hristo Botev) in the local village of Biser. The school is 120 years old but is of sound construction, with a wood-burning stove in each classroom. It serves about 100 children, aged 4-14, including many Roma families. We met 3 of the 11 teachers (Margarita, Tania and Tania's husband) and left them some exercise and drawing books, pens, crayons and pencils. The children are supplied with text books (and breakfast). They study Russian not English, as there is no English-speaking teacher. Only those who go on to high school in Harmanli can learn English. There is no immediate need for more materials, as the school year is about to finish, but the teachers are very grateful for all the boxes already posted out by Babs and Linda.

Matt is very willing to act as the local contact point and intermediary for future support for both these schools, in Svilengrad and Biser. Donations of clothing, toys, craft materials, stationery etc can be sent to him at the address given above.

Motorhomers and caravanners intending to travel in south-east Bulgaria are invited to bring donations with them, stay at the campsite and visit the schools. Particularly welcome would be clothing (age 4 upwards), shoes and other items too heavy to post.


Ruth Morton-Wright

Formerly in Hlyabovo, 5 miles SW of Topolovgrad (Number 2a on second Map)


Ruth has helped by distributing woollies and toys at the kindergarten in her village (25 miles from Biser), though it now has less than 10 children and will probably close. We took her some crayons, colouring books and jigsaws. There is also a village school (up to age 14) and she passes her own family's outgrown toys and clothes to them. She put Barbara in touch with 2 American Peace Corps volunteers (Kelsey and Alexa), who have in turn put us in touch with Greg.

In 2010, Ruth and her children returned to live in her native New Zealand. We are very grateful for the important part Ruth played in extending the project, and wish them all the very best in the future. 

Kelsey Dippold (American Peace Corps)

Formerly in Topolovgrad (Number 2 on the Maps)


Kelsey is a Youth Development Worker from Boston, USA, based at the community centre in Topolovgrad. The ground floor of the centre has a drop-in and canteen for pensioners, while upstairs is a clinic and a youth centre for children aged 9-14. They try to create enriching activities for the children, who come voluntarily in the afternoons and school holidays. (In Bulgaria school runs from about 7.30 am-1 pm.) Topolovgrad is a small rural town, very poor since the closure of its cigarette factory.

Kelsey is impressively enthusiastic and energetic, organizing arts and crafts, dancing, games, cooking, outdoor activities, summer day camps, etc. She also helps a little with English teaching in Topolovgrad school. We gave her some drawing and painting material and baby clothes to distribute through the clinic. She is keen to receive English picture books and work books, as well as arts and crafts supplies.

Like all Peace Corps volunteers, she lives simply, within walking distance of the centre the Peace Corps does not allow its volunteers to drive or own a car and they receive only the local rate of pay during their 2-year placement. 

Alexa Belmont (American Peace Corps)

Formerly in Pishtigovo, 10 miles NE of Pazardzik (Number 3 on the Maps)


Alexa, a volunteBG_Woollies_(1).JPGer from Denver, Colorado, works in a school for about 80 children (aged 4 14) in the tiny village of Pishtigovo, between Plovdiv and Pazardzik, over 90 miles from Biser. She is equally dedicated and full of energy, living in a tiny cottage in the village. She provides after-school activities like drawing, dancing, sports and summer camps, as well as helping in the school with basic English.

Alexa was thrilled with the boxes of school aBG_Woollies_(5).JPGnd drawing material, books, toys, colouring books and clothes that we took. The school was closed that day but we met the English teacher, Violetta. They were busy planning events for the forthcoming holiday of Saints Cyril and Methodius (who translated the Greek bible into Bulgarian).

Alexa walked us round the gipsy quarter of the village, where large families of ragged children ran eagerly to her for a hug she knew them all. Sadly, many of them barely learn to read and write in Bulgarian and can't afford the bus fare to go on to high school in Pazardzik, 10 miles away. She has helped distribute clothing to the poorest children and sent us excellent photos of them in their woolly hats and gloves in the winter of 2008.

Greg Herb (American Peace Corps)

Formerly in Veliki Preslav, south of Shumen (Number 4 on the Maps)

Email:    www.greginbulgaria.blogspot.com

Greg, from Tampa,Preslav_Orphanage_(20).JPG Florida, is working at an orphanage in the town of Veliki Preslav, on the north-east fringe of the Balkan range (180 miles from Biser). It houses about 80 children and is in great need of support. (See the report on our visit, below.)

The orphanage has an age range of 4-19 and Greg (who graduated in Child Development and Psychology) works mainly with the 8-14 year olds. He runs after-school sports and classes in English, computing, art, remedial maths and Bulgarian Preslav_Orphanage_(11).JPGreading, as well as a group for children with special needs. It's especially good for the boys to have a male teacher/helper as a role model, since most of the staff in Bulgarian schools and institutions are female.

Greg needs resources of all kinds, especially art supplies like paper, crayons and markers, as well as sports equipment. Clothing is also desperately required for the children, especially winter jackets, coats, gloves and hats. There is so little that the boys sometimes have to wear girls' clothes to keep warm. We took him most of the supplies left over by Patricia Tribelhorn.

Note: Sadly, all 3 of these dedicated Peace Corps Workers have now completed their 2-year placements and returned to the USA to continue with their education or careers. They gave so much to the projects in which they were involved and we wish them every success. They were a shining example of competence and selflessness.

What can you do to help?

There are a number of possibilities. Contact Barbara (email: ) to see if there are any things that you can provide, including wool, or ways in which you can help to buy useful items. Barbara is in close touch with other team members and can also advise on who needs what in Bulgaria. 

Publicise this project in order to draw other people into the circle. 

Let us know of any contacts you have in Bulgaria who may be willing to help with the distribution.

Most importantly, let us know of anyone planning to travel to Bulgaria, by air or overland, who could carry clothing, toys and supplies to add warmth and pleasure to the lives of these impoverished young children. If you are able to help in this way, please do contact Barbara, and the Bulgarian team members well in advance, to arrange to visit some or all of them, in accordance with your travel plans.

Visit to the Veliki Preslav Orphanage (Number 4 on the Maps)

Margaret and Barry Williamson: 25 May 2009

We visited Greg Herb at the orphanage where he is based as a Peace Corps volunteer, taking some donations of clothing, art and school materials and toys.

We met some of the 80 children who are resident there and what a lovely lively bundle of energy and curiosity we were wrapped in! The youngsters soon abandoned the television room to entertain us: singing, jumping, skipping, offering chocolates (bought for a birthday) and asking about everything we had with us.
Sadly, the children (aged 4-19) are categorised as 'Turkish' (50%), 'Gipsy' (30%) or 'Bulgarian' (20%). To us, they all looked the same - skinny kids in need of love.

About half of the children are from deprived homes, to which they return during the school holidays, while the rest are truly homeless and live full-time in the orphanage.

They attend the normal town school (opposite the orphanage) until the age of 14, when compulsory education ends. Some may then continue to high school. Greg (who studied Child Development and Psychology) identified education as the major problem, for its rigidity and the way that minority children can be discriminated against. He works mainly with the 8-14 year olds, after school in the afternoons, running classes in English, computing, art, remedial maths and reading, as well as a group for children with special needs. He also organizes sports activities (introducing them to baseball and football) and he helps at the kindergarten in the mornings.

The multi-storey building was grimly institutional, inside and out, though the children seemed happy, excited and friendly. At least they are fed and clothed and sent to school. They sleep in small dormitories, with a dining room on each floor. The staff are non-resident, working in shifts, and we did not meet the Director. The school buildings across the road are currently being refurbished, with new windows and other improvements, but the orphanage looks neglected.

The children's biggest problem lies ahead, when they have to leave and find work and accommodation. With their future in mind, Greg is involved with life-skills teaching for the teenagers, working on anti-drugs and people-trafficking programs, HIV/Aids awareness, etc.

Visit to the 'Stefan Vasilev' Internat in Svilengrad  (Number 5 on the Maps)

Margaret and Barry Williamson: 12 May 2009


Svilengrad (meaning 'Silk Town') is a large border town on the Maritsa River in south-east Bulgaria, about 15 miles SE of Biser village. It is less than 10 miles by motorway from the Turkish frontier at Kapitan Andreevo, and is even nearer to the Greek border at Ormeni, to the south across the river.

Our enquiries about an orphanage or children's home in the town led us to this Internat (residential school) for mentally handicapped youngsters. The Director does not speak English and we visited the Internat with Matt Jeffes (of the English family who own and run Sakar Hills Camping in Biser village) and his Bulgarian partner, Magdalena. Thanks to Magdalena's interpreting skill, we were able to interview the Director who also kindly gave us a tour of the school. Matt Jeffes is willing to act as the local contact point and intermediary for any future support that might be given. We are very grateful to him and Magdalena.


Mila Pisyoseva (Director)
Internat 'Stefan Vasilev'
M Gorki Street No 2A

Tel: +359 379 71651  Mobile: +359 878 422142  (Note that only Bulgarian is spoken)

Matt Jeffes
Sakar Hills Camping
2 Georgi Rakovsky Street

Website: www.sakar-hills.com

Interview with the Director, Mila Pisyoseva

1. The Pupils - The children at this residential school are all mentally handicapped, including Downs Syndrome. Some are also physically handicapped and we saw one young boy in a wheelchair.

2. Numbers - Total number of children is 130, aged 6 to 18. Only 6 of them are actually orphans, the others having a parent or relative unable to keep them at home. One third are classed as 'gipsy' (Roma) children.

3. Region The children are drawn from the Municipalities of Svilengrad, Lyubimets, Topolovgrad and Ivailovgrad a very wide area. There is another smaller home in Haskovo for that region, taking both normal and disabled poor or orphaned children

4. Religion Only 5 of the children are Muslim, the remainder nominally Bulgarian Orthodox. The Director wanted to have a small Orthodox chapel within the school but was refused permission.

5. Funding The Central Government Ministry of Education in Sofia provides 2,000 Leva (about 1,000) per child per year for a residential school. (Normal day-schools are given half this amount.) Among much else, this has to cover the pay of the teachers. In addition, the Government pays for the water, electricity and food, plus some notebooks, etc. There is electric air conditioning/heating for the extremes of temperature Bulgaria experiences in summer and winter.

6. EU Involvement We saw EU signs and posters around the school but the Director said the EU was only involved in a project for out-of-school activities.

7. Charity They do not receive any charitable donations, apart from the proceeds of an occasional charity concert.

8. Staffing There are 39 teachers and supervisors, plus 12 cleaners etc. Experts include a Speech Therapist and a Child Psychologist. All are paid (not volunteers) and none of them are resident. Some work shifts to provide 24-hour cover. The Director would like to be resident on the campus but there is no accommodation for her yet. She is totally dedicated to these children and has also personally adopted a boy from the Haskovo home. We asked if any staff spoke English and were told the Computing Teacher and the Accountant had a little, but we didn't meet them.

9. Progress If the condition of a child who is not permanently disabled improves, s/he can be transferred to a normal school. Otherwise, at the age of 18 the children will return home, if that is possible, or go on to an institution for adults. The Child Protection Agency is involved in this process.

10. Socialising The children need to be socialised and they are taken out, using the school minibus. On the day of our visit, some of them were in Haskovo for a 'Special Olympics'. It's good that the school is right in the town, a short walk from the centre, and not isolated in the countryside. There is some contact with a normal school situated across the road and the children can see the pupils coming and going and playing in the yard.

Tour of the School

The large 2-storey building has been used as an Internat for 10 years, though it's older than that. It was sound, clean and well maintained, though basically furnished by West European standards. Outside there were gardens and yards with play equipment (swings, roundabout etc) and a small new gymnasium. It was all securely fenced and felt very safe. There was a staff room on the ground floor and the Director's office upstairs.

We were shown some of the first-floor bedrooms, each sleeping 6 or 8 children in 2-tier bunk beds. They were clean and bright, bedding neatly folded, though no sign of personal possessions and only minimal provision of drawers or cupboards. Each room had an old television.

Downstairs we saw a couple of the small classrooms, equipped with desks and chairs, and a playroom with soft toys etc for the younger ones. There were brightly coloured wall-paintings in rooms and corridors, illustrating children's favourite characters and stories (we recognised Little Red Riding Hood).

We saw the Psychologist's room, where she was working with a young boy, assessing his development with the aid of moving pictures. There was also a small medical room.

As it was lunch-time, some children were in the canteen. The older ones predictably were gathered in the computer room playing games on about 6 old machines. Others were out in the playground, closely watched by staff.


We were very impressed with the obvious love and care shown to the children. They all appeared to be clean, properly clothed and alert. They showed no fear of us strangers and they welcomed physical contact. All very different from our experience of taking aid to Romanian orphanages in 1990 thank goodness.

Although the children's immediate basic needs are covered, the Director would welcome any gifts of clothing, toys or school materials (paper, crayons etc) suitable for age 6 to 18. Even donations of adult clothing would be passed on to the parents or guardians of these children, who come from the poorest background.

Please contact Matt Jeffes (see above) if you can help.

In the boot of Matt's car: some of the items we are taking out to needy children in ghettoes and orphanages


In Biser, in south-east Bulgaria: one of the boxes sent to Carol from South Wales by Barbara Hurley


In Biser, in south-east Bulgaria: another of the boxes sent to Carol  from Berkshire by Linda Hedley

Some of the children at the Veliki Preslav Orphanage in north-east Bulgaria
More of the children at the Preslav Orphanage in north-east Bulgaria Preslav_Orphanage_(17).JPG
Greg with three of the children at the Preslav Orphanage (another child took the picture)
One boy captured this picture of Barry with another of the children at the Preslav Orphanage Preslav_Orphanage_(28).JPG
Greg, Barry and Bob very much in the background as the children take over the camera
Turning the tables, Bob and Margaret pose for an orphan's photograph!

Alexa with three of the children in Pishtigovo in their new woolly hats and gloves


 Warmth brings happiness in the deep midwinter in Pishtigovo


 How can such children live in the conditions shown in this unforgettable image?


 Brave smiles and puzzled looks for Alexa's camera.


 Good friends in the mud street, the mud brick houses and the snow: the only sign of western influence is Coca Cola


 What life can this young girl expect, proud in her coat, her new gloves and her new hat?