On the edge of Antarctica, Lyaskovets Peak (1473m) can be found - a mountain named after the small Bulgarian town of Lyaskovets. It is true that the average annual temperature in central Bulgaria is not -50° Celsius as it is in the Antarctic interior. But there is a coldness here and there that cannot be measured with a thermometer. A small Methodist church feels called to make a difference by sharing warmth and hope in Lyaskovets.
In the 1990s, Pastor Ivan Morunov came to the former Bulgarian capital of Veliko Tarnovo. His goal for the local United Methodist church was not just to administer what existed. Rather then, he also wanted to find new ways to share the Gospel through words and deeds. Soon after, a promising door opened in the small town of Lyaskovets, 12 km to the northeast, and together with his wife Anna he planted a new Methodist congregation in 1999. From the beginning, this congregation was very much involved with and for people from the numerically large local Roma community – and especially for Roma children. Ivan and Anna Morunov quickly realized that the public schools could not meet the special needs of these children. Due to their family situation and living conditions, these Roma children were disadvantaged and needed additional help through afterschool programs.
At first, the activities took place in a small room. But because the Roma children experienced a level of attention and warmth here that they did not find elsewhere, the room soon became overcrowded. So, the idea was born to create a children's center to work with children from Roma families. From the beginning, the goal was not only to alleviate short-term hardship, but to open up perspectives for the future. That is why the children's center was given the name "Bridge of Hope".
Often the parents of the Roma children work abroad or are divorced – and the grandparents are not able to take sufficient care of their grandchildren. For this reason, the children have great difficulty preparing for school, and they lag significantly behind other children. Thus, helping them to learn the educational content became the first main task of the center. By hiring a retired teacher, it was possible to ensure professional support in terms of school preparation. In a second step, care for younger children who did not attend kindergarten was organized.
Soon, however, it became apparent that the old church-owned building, in which the center was housed, needed urgent renovation. Thanks to the financial support from Waiblingen (Germany), however, it was not only possible to continue the previous activities. Rather then, space has also been created for work with additional children of different ages and for further activities in the fields of music, cooking, computers, foreign languages, sports, gardening, creativity, etc. In addition, the approximately 30 children and adolescents in the center also receive a daily full meal.
The fact that the staff of the "Bridge of Hope" prepared meals anyway, moved the local church to provide, during the winter months, homeless people with hot meals, as well. An additional expansion took place when the center began to also provide a daily hot meal to 20 Turkish-speaking children from a school in Veliko Tarnovo.
The work of the center is highly appreciated by the local authorities, and the management and staff enjoy a great deal of trust from parents as well as political and school officials – also because they do not act in a self-centered manner, but deliberately seek very close cooperation with the city's two schools and some non-governmental organizations. In this way, not only a warm family atmosphere is created, which children and their relatives feel and appreciate so much. Rather, the continuation of the children's education can be promoted, as well – and through appropriate educational work, early marriages can also be prevented, for example. The center helps some students to pay their transportation costs when they continue their education in Veliko Tarnovo. Scholarships are also provided for some students at the university of Veliko Tarnovo. Some of the children from the center have already earned university degrees in education and social welfare.
In the meantime, the center is preparing to work with the second generation of children, as some of the first children who visited the "Bridge of Hope" are already parents themselves. In this way, a relationship is established that will have a beneficial impact on future generations beyond the moment, creating conditions for a better future for children and their families. It is a real bridge of warmth, humanity and hope for many people in challenging times.
Ivan Morunov (64) is a pastor of the UMC in Bulgaria. His whole family is involved in the activities of the “Bridge of Hope” center in many ways - his wife Anna, their daughter Denitsa, their son Christian and even their granddaughter Joanna.
Source: Superintendent Daniel Topalski, Varna (Bulgaria) / Urs Schweizer, Assistant to the Bishop, Zurich (Switzerland)