2009.07.07: July 7, 2009: Headlines: COS - Bulgaria: MyWebTimes.com: Peace Corps Volunteer Kristen Ritter returned from Bulgaria with a bit of sadness but greater confidence

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Bulgaria: Peace Corps Bulgaria: Peace Corps Bulgaria: Newest Stories: 2009.07.07: July 7, 2009: Headlines: COS - Bulgaria: MyWebTimes.com: Peace Corps Volunteer Kristen Ritter returned from Bulgaria with a bit of sadness but greater confidence

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Peace Corps Volunteer Kristen Ritter returned from Bulgaria with a bit of sadness but greater confidence

Peace Corps Volunteer Kristen Ritter returned from Bulgaria with a bit of sadness but greater confidence

As for Bulgarian life and culture, Ritter said there are differences between America and Bulgaria, which was under communist control until the late 1980s. My family was over there and they said it"s just like America used to be in the 1940s. It"s kind of an old-fashioned country. They"re very focused on family. Everybody cans everything for the winter. They have Soviet-era cars because during communism every family got a car, so everyone still has one of those. They just joined the European Union in 2007, so that was supposed to help bring them up to date, but what happened when they joined the European Union is all the prices went up so much that it was harder for people to afford things. Over time, that will get better since they are part of the European Union. Right now it just makes it hard because European Union citizens come to Bulgaria by land and buy everything that Bulgarians can"t afford."

Peace Corps Volunteer Kristen Ritter returned from Bulgaria with a bit of sadness but greater confidence

Grand Ridge woman shares her Peace Corps experiences

07/07/2009, 8:06 am

Jerrilyn Zavada, newsroom@mywebtimes.com, 815-433-2000

Caption: Kristen Ritter (right) works at a summer camp for the Roma School in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, during her time with the Peace Corps.

Kristen Ritter returned from Bulgaria with a bit of sadness but greater confidence.

The 25-year old Grand Ridge woman had been in the Peace Corps since August 2006.

She was in her senior year at Aurora University and hadn't decided what to pursue after graduating. Her international business professor encouraged her to join the humanitarian organization.

"It was along the lines of the work that I wanted to do, and I could still travel and work internationally," Ritter told the Times.

She says her goal was to work with human rights or international development.

"They have a lot of organizations like KIVA that give out small loans to business people in developing countries and that"s along the lines of what I wanted to do," she said.

While Ritter was excited about this new venture in her life, her family and friends were hesitant.

"They were excited but nervous for me. I think a lot of my friends and my family were like ‘Are you sure that"s what you really want to do?"" Ritter said. "I could pick up tomorrow and go to Bulgaria and it would be like a second home. I felt comfortable the whole way," she concluded.

Once Ritter arrived in Bulgaria, she stayed with 40 other American volunteers in a hotel for five days. Then it was time for her host family to pick her up for her stay with them. She had two host parents and two host brothers.

"When they picked me up it was my host dad and one of his friends and I didn"t know any of the language so I could say ‘Hello," ‘My name is," ‘I"m from," simple things that my host family already knew about me," she said. "And they were just sitting in front talking and talking, and they didn"t know any English at all, and I was just riding along thinking ‘What have I gotten myself into?" And then when we got to my host family‘s house, one of my host brothers could speak a little bit of English so he came out and spoke a few broken sentences."

Ritter underwent three months' training in the country"s language. She attended school from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day with an afternoon project with five other Americans living in the same town. As part of the training, volunteers also did community programs to get them used to the idea of the work they would do once they were alone.

"The first three months was really mentally exhausting," she continued. "It was neat going back to visit my host family after I"d been there for a couple of years because then I could actually talk to them about politics, life in America, life in Bulgaria, things of substance."

Once Ritter completed her training, she moved into her own apartment about two hours south of her host family to a town about the size of Streator. Once Peace Corps volunteers are trained, they no longer have daily contact with Peace Corps, but work for a Bulgarian organization and do whatever is needed. Ritter worked as a youth development volunteer in a nongovernment organization from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Some of her responsibilities were organizing trainings such as team building, project design and management and project sustainability.

She also volunteered in junior high and high schools in the mornings from 8 to 11 and adult English classes at night. She discovered the Bulgarian National Population and the Roma (the derogatory name for Roma would be gypsies) coexisted in schools without the Roma being engaged in the classroom and Roma kids were not given the same opportunities the Bulgarian National Population were given.

While Ritter enjoyed the people she worked for and with, there were hurdles she faced in the difference in attitudes between Americans and Bulgarians.

"Americans kind of have this view that if you can imagine it you can make things happen and Bulgarians aren"t like that at all," Ritter said. "They"ll have an idea and at least 90 percent of them will say, ‘That"ll never work, won"t happen, don"t even try." So trying to get past that with them was a big hurdle in the beginning."

She says she worked with youths who had some exposure to American television and had seen more of the American attitude that anything is possible. As for older Bulgarians, after being there for a year or so and letting them see the projects that did happen worked well, they changed their thinking as well.

As for Bulgarian life and culture, Ritter said there are differences between America and Bulgaria, which was under communist control until the late 1980s.

"My family was over there and they said it"s just like America used to be in the 1940s. It"s kind of an old-fashioned country. They"re very focused on family. Everybody cans everything for the winter. They have Soviet-era cars because during communism every family got a car, so everyone still has one of those. They just joined the European Union in 2007, so that was supposed to help bring them up to date, but what happened when they joined the European Union is all the prices went up so much that it was harder for people to afford things. Over time, that will get better since they are part of the European Union. Right now it just makes it hard because European Union citizens come to Bulgaria by land and buy everything that Bulgarians can"t afford."

Ritter said it was difficult adjusting to how Bulgarians handle paying utility and other bills that Americans can just pay over the Internet.

"If you have an issue with your Internet it could take you two minutes, it could take you 20 minutes, you never know. I didn"t have a water bill for a year and a half and I would go every month and say "OK, what do I owe for water?" and they would look it up on the computer screen and say "nothing" and I would say "That"s impossible. It"s been a year and a half. I owe something." Just figuring out those little things was probably the hardest part.

Ritter said in her experience, Bulgaria seemed safer than America, in that there was a low crime rate. Young Bulgarians are allowed more freedom than young Americans.

"Bulgaria is about the size of Tennessee, and I lived on the inland part of the country. The Black Sea was on the opposite side of the country and it was about 10 hours by train and high school kids could just take off and go there for the weekend."

Ritter remembers fondly learning the Horo, a Bulgarian traditional group line dance that is done in any Bulgarian restaurant at 9 or 10 at night. She also would invite her students over to her apartment and have themed food nights centered around various foods Americans eat, such as Southern, Chinese or Mexican.

Her saddest memory is leaving her host family and friends she made.

"You don"t know if you"re going to see them again, and they can only speak Bulgarian, so if I lose my language I can"t write to them anymore, I can"t call them on the phone. Then, my best friend Julia drives me down to the bus station and my kids are standing out there waiting to say goodbye, so probably that was the saddest, having to leave."

Ritter says the biggest lesson she learned was how similar people are all over the world.

"I have friends in many different countries now, and my friend Julia is one of my best friends and I still talk to her every week," Ritter said.

Once she got back to the U.S., she applied some of the lessons she learned during her time in Peace Corps in substitute teaching at various Streator schools by teaching her students how to write their names in Bulgarian and what youths their age do there.

Meanwhile, Ritter"s plans will build off the experiences she gained in the Peace Corps. She says she would like to do grant auditing for the government and is looking into working for U.S. Aid in Washington D.C.

"I think after Peace Corps that I"m less scared to go out into the world. If there"s something I want to do, I feel pretty confident that I can achieve it," she concluded.




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