The small casement window allowed little light into the large dismal room on the second floor of a Bulgarian Renaissance house in Varosha, Blagoevgrad’s old town. The room was empty except for two old red-upholstered couches and a round coffee table by the window.
Suddenly the wooden staircase began creaking. Animated, chirp-like talking wafted up to the bleak room. Moments later, five school girls and a boy appeared on the top of the stairs. They dropped their school backpacks on the parquet wood floor, headed for the door on the left and disappeared through it.
The children entered a cozy arts studio bathed in sunlight. Clutching broad drawing papers, thin and thick brushes, pastels, color pencils and oil paints the little artists took their seats at the drawing desks.
The sound of pencils tracing lines on the grainy paper surface quickly filled the studio. The children grew quiet and immersed themselves in their drawings, which were to be sent to various regional and national arts competitions.
These talented six-graders are just a small part of the roughly 1,700 children who enroll in the various clubs, arts and science classes and sports teams that the United Children Estate, ODK, offers every school year.
“ODK is an institution that provides extracurricular activities to schoolchildren,” said Maya Damyankina, head of ODK since 2000. “Kids come to ODK to show and further develop their talents. Here they spend their free time in a meaningful way and broaden their knowledge on various topics that are of interest to them.”
Although ODK organizes its curriculum just like a regular school does, one major facet sets it apart- there are no exams. High school teachers and guest instructors attend to children’s intellectual and artistic needs without subjecting them to the often stressful process of examinations.
Children receive other opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and skills- numerous theater plays, regional and national competitions and festivals. For instance, ODK has been organizing the National Student Feast “For Our Bread” at the end of April for more than a decade now.
“The feast celebrates bread as a symbol, a tradition, past and present,” Damyankina said. “Bread is not only food. It is a medicine, a hope for our future, a link to our past.”
She explained that the three-day long feast brings together children from all over Bulgaria. By taking part in the three stages of the feast- differentiation between grain crops, recognition of folklore adages and short stories about bread, and a creative presentation of pitkas, homemade round bread- children forge friendships and create unforgettable memories.
Thanks to its partnership with the National Palace of ChildrenODK has provided free participation in a summer arts camp to 300 of its children, all winners of different competitions. The National Palace of Children has been organizing the camp in a Black Sea resort for the last couple of years.
“The sad part is that many of these kids saw the Black Sea for the very first time at this camp,” Damyankina said.
In the times of chronic and acute financial hardship, it is heartening to know that the children in Blagoevgrad have a small haven of warmth and positivity to nurture their optimism and creative selves.