The Leadership Academy GLOW program
My name is Jean Hatcherson and I am a professor of cultural anthropology at Western Connecticut State University. I support groups working to empower women and two years ago began volunteering in Bulgaria with Leadership Academy Girls Leading Our World, a one-week peer leadership camp originally established by the Peace Corps. Since the Peace Corps mission in Bulgaria is complete, GLOW is now run by an all-female volunteer staff comprised of GLOW alumni.
I wanted to take the time and share with you about my unique experience as I believe it is important for our community.
Next summer will be the third year that I will bring American volunteers to work alongside GLOW trainers. In 2014, our volunteers will include high school teachers from Connecticut who hope to establish a long term, cross-cultural writing program between the Bulgarian girls and their students.
Below is a bit more on my story.
As a traveler in over 65 countries, a lecturer in cultural anthropology at Western Connecticut State University (WCSU) and a lifelong humanitarian volunteer, I believe in providing people with opportunities for experiential learning. For many years I have worked with colleagues in the humanitarian field to take students and others on service learning and travel study trips to Asia, South America and Africa. In the Fall of 2011, I began searching for a new, summer program, one where I could establish an ongoing relationship. I contacted a close friend and board member of the Bulgarian American Society (BAS) who put me in touch with their executive board. Founded in 1991 by former US State Department officials, and others interested in helping Bulgaria during transition, including former Ambassador to Bulgaria Sol Polansky, BAS supports a variety of social and educational programs. They were very enthusiastic about a summer youth camp developed by Peace Corps volunteers in 2000. Through BAS, I was introduced to Tsvetta and Margarita Kaleynska, and thus began my association with Leadership Academy GLOW, an all volunteer, all female-run program dedicated to empowering young Bulgarian girls through peer leadership training.
The Leadership Academy GLOW program is a perfect fit as my academic interests include issues of gender equality and female empowerment. After several meetings and email exchanges with Tsvetta and Magy, I was able to travel with three volunteers to Bulgaria in the summer of 2012. Along with three Peace Corps volunteers, we assisted the GLOW staff in their camp activities. In 2013, we were five volunteers from the US. Since Peace Corps has finished their mission in Bulgaria as of June 2013, we are now the “American” helpers, the first non-Peace Corps Americans to work with GLOW.
Recruited through WCSU and my network of friends and colleagues, the “American volunteers” include university students, college professors, and corporate professionals. Mostly women (we do have one male volunteer), aged 18 to seventy, each brings a unique element to the camp in hopes of inspiring the Bulgarian girls through socialization, conversation and instruction. For example, two years ago an education specialist from WCSU, Dr. Darla Shaw, led a seminar on fund raising and public speaking in 2012. She organized an alternative “Cinderella Night” where the girls rewrote the ending of the fairy tale, keeping in mind that in the end you cannot depend on a fairy godmother or a handsome prince to save the day. This year, Betsy Thomas, a long time life coach, inspired the girls in 2013 to dream big using vision boards as tool. Also, a corporate trainer from The Hartford, Patty Jensen, used her seminar leadership training to prepare the campers for a debate. Finally, university students participated in team building activities, ice-breakers and everyday socialization, including leading exercises class and morning walks.
The learning is not a one-way street: the US volunteers often gain as much, maybe even more, than our Bulgarian counterparts. Literally situated at a crossroads of history, bordered by Greece and Turkey on the south and Romania to the north, Bulgaria is layered in rich archeological wonders. At the same time, Bulgaria is the poorest country in the European Union. While the Bulgarian girls practice their English and quiz us on life in the US, the American volunteers have the opportunity and the privilege of immersing themselves for seven to ten days in a foreign culture. Our instruction takes place over lunch, while painting our nails, through discussions of gender roles during morning curriculum. Our day-to-day, side-by-side activities provide endless occasions to learn about gender, culture and life chances for young girls growing up in a post-communist, South Central European country. For us, these select girls enthusiastically, and tirelessly, model strength in their curiosity, intelligence and resilience. What we bring home to our schools, workplace, and families is knowledge and experience of not only social norms, but of history, economics and politics too. We have a chance also to see ourselves through the lens of others, young people whose ideas of America are shaped by the news, social media and music videos. Sometimes this reflection can be surprising and challenging!
My collaboration with Leadership Academy GLOW continues. We are currently working with two high school English teachers in Connecticut to develop an educational exchange of ideas, perhaps to even bring high school students from the US to be campers at GLOW. Former volunteers are also interested in being GLOW counselors next year. In addition, recruitment is underway for more “American volunteers.” I look forward to growing with GLOW.