Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Bulgaria: Mentoring in Bulgaria

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by Juhair Mahtab

Big Brothers Big Sister (BBBS) Bulgaria is one of the largest mentoring organizations in Bulgaria with a long history. We got in touch with Lena Karnalova who is the founder and CEO at BBBS Bulgaria. It is an affiliate member of the “Big Brother Big Sisters International” and provides mentoring services for children and youth at risk. She discusses mentoring in Bulgaria, the challenges it faces, what tools they utilize in the mentoring programmes, how the quality of mentoring is maintained and how BBBS Bulgaria is managing to do a great job in the mentoring of children through the support of volunteers.

Mentoring with volunteers in Bulgaria is quite different compared to mentoring in Western Europe as they do not have a trend of volunteering and it is a new field over there. But this is gradually changing in a good direction. As a recognized volunteering organization, people come to BBBS Bulgaria for volunteering opportunities. However, not everyone is ready to become mentors since it is a big responsibility and requires a long-time commitment for the training and becoming an experienced mentor. The volunteers themselves working on different projects and activities related to mentoring. Diversifying can give them a lot of benefits as they have a large network of volunteers working on different activities. For example, a child from social care who already has a mentor from the mentoring programme can be matched with other volunteers from other projects who can help the child in artistic activities and homework help. Lena hopes to have national coverage for the mentoring programme with as many matches as possible, working in multiple regions within Bulgaria. But to get there, more funding and support will be required from other municipalities. Obtaining funding for their activities has always been a challenge for BBBS Bulgaria as they do not receive any support from the government or regional authorities, which is the case for most NGOs in Bulgaria. Various funding programmes get money from corporate donations and private funders. Since their work is related to youth, education and social affairs, they also have some funds coming in from the EU. BBBS Bulgaria also receives Erasmus+ funding, with over 50 projects supported by them.

The tools and practices implemented by BBBS Bulgaria have been received from the United States from various mentoring programmes. However, the situation is quite different in Bulgaria. Changes and adaptations have been made to them over the years to work with the volunteers and best target the issues faced by these children in Bulgaria. The volunteers have a big responsibility as they work with disadvantaged kids. A great deal of attention is therefore paid to volunteer preparation before they start working. There is a thorough intake procedure and training of the volunteers, involving multiple levels of interviews, pass-through training and psychological assessments of the volunteers. All these are done to ensure that the children are protected. The intake of the volunteers also involves obtaining recommendation letters and background checks. The case management process every month is used to obtain feedback from the volunteers, which is essential to maintain the quality of the programmes. There are also individual supervision every three months and group supervision every six months. BBBS Bulgaria is also registered in the state agency for child protection which requires them to report all files of the children to ensure the protection of the children they work with.

The mentoring programme has been very successful in Bulgaria and has had a great impact on many people’s lives, both mentors and mentees. How do they reach out to mentees? There is the school-based direction where children at different primary schools are directed to BBBS Bulgaria. These are children which the school feels would benefit from a mentor. The intake process is quite detailed and involves collecting information about the children from the school, their parents and through interviews with the children. The programmes are introduced to the children as a fun time with friends and providing them with new opportunities while addressing the problems these children might have. This is done to ensure that the children do not feel pressured to participate because they are not doing well at school or home. BBBS Bulgaria also works with social services for abandoned children without parents. The poor economic situation in many families means that these children are left to be raised under the care of social service institutions. Children with needs are referred by the social workers and the institutions to the mentoring programme. Lena says that” 100% of children living in these institutions have a need for a mentor since social workers do not have enough time or they are not well educated and competent. All of these kids live in social isolation and social skills, so the programme is very beneficial.” The needs of these children are very big and BBBS Bulgaria hopes to cover all of these institutions in Bulgaria for long-term personal, social and career impacts through their mentoring.

And how does BBBS Bulgaria hopes to get national coverage for supporting these children in need? One is to work with the ministry of education and science to get the mentoring programme recognized for its positive impact on children with difficulties and include it as a part of the school or after-school programmes. Secondly, receiving the support of the ministry of social affairs by getting the programme recognized as a tool to help institutionalized children. Though Lena cannot be sure how this will be executed, these options will be able to provide them financial stability and increase the number of matches. The detailed and time-consuming intake procedure of the volunteers and case management process will require further funding if it is to be expanded and it is one of the reasons why BBBS Bulgaria still hasn’t reached national coverage. She senses a shift in the local and government opinions towards volunteering in Bulgaria. The needs of these children are very big and there is an increase in the number of volunteering stepping forward to help these children. Recently, there has also been an increased media focus towards volunteering to tell positive stories that have come out of it. This is indeed a big win for the youth mentoring community in Bulgaria.

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