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Jan 24, 2011

Life-skills program: January 2011 update

Dear Friends,

Back in November last year, we began our full year program once more. It was great to see all the children after the summer break. They, as well as us, were ready to begin academic year again.

This year we are covering five homes in four cities in Bulgaria. We are currently working with 35 dedicated students and 7 enthusiastic volunteers. We hope to start working with a new home in Panagiurishte with some 15 children living in it who could definitely use the contact and attention.

This year we started our academic program with the psychological awareness and development module where we talk about assertiveness, self-esteem, conflict resolution and feedback. We have been fortunate enough to have support from psychology professionals as part of our volunteer corps. During the past few months, our students have been involved in discussions around what it means to be responsible, how do we communicate and set rules of interaction in difficult situations, how do we self-reflect and learn from others' feedback. We've seen out students both enrich their vocabulary with words related to resolving formal disputes and self-cognition and share with others real-life stories that help demonstrate the importance of psychological and emotional intelligence. 

For Christmas, we had a special event for the students we work with in Plovdiv and in Berkovitsa. The first group spent a day with some of their regular volunteer trainers and an American guest, whom they took on a tour through the old city. We all visited one of the most beautiful galleries around and ended the day with a hefty traditional meal - anticipating Christmas with full bellies and a sincere conversation. The second group had arts and crafts workshop, producing Christmas cards and souvenirs that were sold off to raise additional resources for the teenagers' educational activities.

Following the wrap up of the psychology awareness module we will move on to another crucial topic - human rights and discrimination. The teenagers we work with encounter every day discriminatory practices against them - at school, in the local community, in public venues. The reason for that is that children living without parental care, in social care institutions in Bulgaria, are typically seen as impolite, unkempt, irresponsible and in general, doomed to failure in life. On top of that, a majority of them are born to ethnic minority parents and are racially discriminated against. That is why it is crucial to prepare our students to understand the reasons for the discriminative and anti-humanistic practices they endure and to teach them how to counteract such behaviors. We have recruited a group of volunteers who were trained in late November by experts from the Helsinki Committee in Bulgaria. These 15 volunteer trainers are now going off to work with underprivileged teenagers in the cities of Sofia, Plovdiv, Berkovitsa, Gabrovo, Silistra and Varna to work with more than 70 students. In each city, we'll hold three consecutive interactive training sessions where the participating teenagers will learn: what are their universal human rights and why they exist; what responsibilities these human rights employ for each of us; what are the causes of discrimination and how to recognize the act of it; how to address discriminatory practices in our everyday life. The training will end with two final events where we'll have children from the different cities come together, have a public debate and demonstrate artwork and creative activities related to the topic of human rights and discrimination. We hope to thus raise the awareness about the everyday human rights breaches these youth encounter and to encourage the general public to respect their rights.

Wish us luck with what's coming! We will of course keep you updated on the way things are going!

Thank you all for the kind support! We have received many donations over the Christmas season which is extremely helpful to keep us going! We would love to hear your feedback or in case you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us!

Oct 19, 2010

Summer Academy 2010 final report

The Summer Academy 2010 is now completed. Thanks to your amazing help we were able to raise enough funds to pay for the accommodation and food expenses of 8 (out of 41) teenagers living without parental care who participated in the education camp this year. They spent two weeks with their peers from from 5 different Bulgarian cities (and 6 different social care institutions) learning useful skills and knowledge to prepare for their successful entry into society and the labor force. During the camp's two weeks (between end of August and early September), the 41 participants were taught by more than 20 volunteers (professionals and students from various fields) coming from 6 different countries classes in English language, computer skills, personal finance, and entrepreneurial skills. 

This year the participants were split into five student business groups, who had to create a project proposal in order to obtain the necessary budget to implement their idea. Projects ranged from hotel marketing to an environmental awareness building initiative. Through working on these business projects, the students realized how challenging, yet how rewarding is to work in a team to conceive, defend and bring to reality a specific idea. This experience gave them a good taste of some essential professional skills and motivated them to learn more about each other and about the specific business topics they engaged with. 

The Summer Academy hosted several guest visits by professionals from various fields - ranging from a catering company manager to the U.S. Ambassador in Bulgaria. These visits allowed the participants to learn what it takes to be successful in a specific profession and to expand their horizon of opportunities for their future career development. Our volunteers worked with the kids not only in teaching them new knowledge but also in developing their talents and curiosity to learn new things. Various workshops were held during the academy, including Chinese calligraphy, theatre, dance and robotics. 

At the end of the Academy, the feedback received from the young students and their supervisors demonstrated that we have succeeded in engaging them in mastering new knowledge in English, finance and entrepreneurship as well as in motivating them to want to learn and develop. The student supervisors, who know them well as they work with them everyday within the social care institution, noted the positive change in behaviors and attitudes of the students during the course of the two weeks. Our volunteer recognize the experience as very challenging, yet formative and rewarding. 

Based on the learnings from this summer, our team is committed to work hard on developing the right set up for next year's summer academy. We'll keep you posted on what shape this takes. Our current thinking is to beef up the vocational training options offered as part of the summer academy (which are currently only touched upon through the guest visits of various professionals) and to maintain the focus on motivating and inspiring our students to aim high, to set specific goals, to design a concrete plan to get there and to not give up until they achieve them. 

We thank you all for the great support that you have offered - both material and spiritual - given that we're a completely volunteer-run organization, the support we see in donors of the globalgiving network gives us yet another reason to work persistently to create better life opportunities for the underprivileged youth that we work with. Thank you!

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Oct 13, 2010

Progress report on Teach Life skills

Dear supporters, 

We're soon starting a new season of our life-skills training program for youth, living without parents in social care institutions. We'll be working in Sofia, Berkovitsa, Plovdiv and Varna this year - with about 40 teenagers, to teach them skills related to psychological awareness and development, effective communication, conflict resolution, defending one's human rights, taking care of one's body and health, and practicing essential professional skills that are needed for anyone planning to work with others successfully. 

Last year - the 2009/2010 edition of the program finished on May 30 - we observed great results in the increased motivation of the students that we work with to master the skills taught, to work with each other, and most importantly - to demonstrate and apply what they have learned. At the closing ceremony of the event, we had all 35 participants both present pre-prepared projects, works and presentations to a big audience and improvise on the spot in order to successfully design and deliver a creative presentation on a challenging topic as part of a team that they've never worked with before. During the event, we had a contest with mixed teams of students from different cities, who had to convince the audience that the conventional plastic straw can be useful in many ways - ranging from serving as a fashion accessory to being used in constructing buildings. A jury of 5 professionals from various fields assessed the different presentations and selected a winner. 

The most motivated and dedicated students, who never missed a class and consistently demonstrated their desire to learn in the training sessions, were invited to participate in the STEP 2010 Summer Academy which took place in the end of August. 

This year, starting in just a few weeks, we have prepared diligently the various topics that we'll be working with our students on. We have a sample trainer's manual, ready to be shared with volunteers and representatives of other organizations who would like to teach life skills to the youth they work with. As a completely volunteer-run organization, we recognize that we cannot serve all youth that need our support, so we've decided to use innovative ways to share our know-how and experience. Apart from having the trainer's manual, we have also set-up a new train-the-trainer program, called Trainer's Pact "Step in the Future", in order to meet other enthusiastic people working with underprivileged youth and learn together how to be more effective in preparing this youth for their independent life. 

We'll keep you posted on how the start of this year's Step in the Future life skills training program goes. Thank you all for the amazing support you offer and for following our progress! If you have any questions or suggestions, please don't hesitate to get in touch!

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