Bulgaria smiling

Chicoan looks to hometown to help orphan children

Christina Stoimenova (top right) with orphan kids in the Bulgarian town of Dupnitsa, in 2009.

Christina Stoimenova (top right) with orphan kids in the Bulgarian town of Dupnitsa, in 2009.

PHOTO Courtesy of christina stoimenova

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For info on making a contribution, email scstoimenovi@gmail.com or visit www.facebook.com/SmileBulgaria.

Christina Stoimenova is enjoying each day to its fullest, taking in the beautiful weather and the convenience of everyday life in Chico, her hometown, but also a place she’s just visiting.

For the past nine years, Stoimenova has lived in Bulgaria, a small Eastern European country, and the poorest in the European Union. Life is harder in almost every way in the former communist nation, and it’s especially difficult for the children in orphanages, a segment of the population that has been terribly neglected by society and the corrupt country, where there are more children in orphanages than in any other country in the EU.

Especially ostracized are those known as Roma children, the politically correct term for Gypsies, Stoimenova explained. Bulgarians generally are extremely prejudiced against Gypsy kids, whose ethnicity in recent years has been traced to India. The children are throwaways, growing up without the education and social skills needed to be successful in life.

“These kids don’t have a lot of hope,” she said.

But Stoimenova, whom Chicoans know as Christina Lando (daughter of former City Manager Tom Lando and Cindy Page), is working to change that. And she’s back in the States temporarily to shed light on the plight of these forgotten children and to convince others to come to their aid.

Stoimenova, 36, and her husband, Spas, a native Bulgarian she met while working with orphans at a summer camp, are here raising funds to open a family-based center to house six to eight orphaned kids and provide them with the love, support and life skills necessary for them to lead healthy and productive lives as adults. There’s a great need for such family-like environs, as the institutions the orphan children are reared in provide only the most basic of needs, often just food and shelter, and where abuse is common.

Thus, when the children leave the relative safety of the orphanages when they turn 18, most are ill prepared. While the men oftentimes can eke out a living doing hard labor, the women don’t have as many options. In general, many of these young adults turn to crime, the women mostly selling their bodies, Stoimenova said.

“That only reinforces the stereotype,” she said.

Stoimenova’s work with orphans started when she went on a month-long trip to the Ukraine in 1999 between her junior and senior years at Biola University, a private Christian college in Southern California. She recalled having to physically pull off children who had attached themselves to her body when she would get ready to leave at the end of the day. “They were so desperate for attention that they would literally cling to you,” said Stoimenova, who returned to the Ukraine after graduation and moved to Bulgaria in 2004.

Stoimenova described how Bulgarian orphanages are often overloaded with children, upward of 20 in some cases with just one person in a supervising role. Conversely, the family-based center the Stoimenovas are proposing to open would include two live-in parental figures, ideally a married couple, as well as a psychologist, social worker and tutors; basically everything needed for the children to transition to adulthood.

“We want it to be a model that can change people’s perception,” she said. “That’s what can change society.”

The Stoimenovas are working with The Smile Bulgaria Foundation, in cooperation with Global Outreach International, a Christian nonprofit the couple have partnered with as missionaries, teaching everything from reading and writing English and Bulgarian to practical job skills such as sewing and computer literacy. They are working to raise about $65,000, which would sustain the center for a year. So far, they’ve raised about 10 percent of the funds. They plan to return to Bulgaria in August.

Originally, the Stoimenovas had planned to act as the house parents in a home, but the couple put that plan on hold and instead will oversee the facility because they are raising two young daughters, Joanna and Abigail, ages 4 and 22 months, respectively. When the girls grow up and leave home, Stoimenova says, then she and her husband would like to be the parental figures in a center.

“Hopefully by that time there won’t be a need,” she said.