The Most Important Journey

Ivanka Shalapatova
Най-важната екскурзия в живота ми
Oct. 26, 2020
True success stands not only for achieving something good and significant for you or your team. True success means making a big or even smaller step towards making people happy; doing an act of kindness or dedicating yourself in the long-term to the well-being of our whole society. And that’s exactly why I don’t find that big of a difference between managing a corporation and a foundation.

In the year 1997 I didn’t know any of that. Back then I thought my true calling in life was different – presenting the authentic beauty of Rhodope Mountains and Bulgaria as a whole. I wanted to become a guide and was even doing not one, but two Bachelor degrees in Philology in the University of Plovdiv. As a full-time student, in order to make a living for myself I worked as a part-time check taker and translator. All of a sudden, one day a retired teacher from the Language high school connected me with a British organization “European Child Trust” – their representatives wanted to visit our country and more specifically some foster homes. Their mission was to express the need of change in children’s life – by shooting a video and starting a fund raiser for the kids that are forced to live there. I accepted the job as a translator and event planner while they were in Bulgaria. A foster home for disabled children  in Iskra (Bulgarian village) was the first we ever visited.

Somewhere between the road sign that says ‘Karnobat’ and that village began the most important journey of my life which, fortunately, continues to this day.

To that moment, after all these years, I still tempt to think that I’ve given more to the Bulgarian children and to the evolution of our society, than I’ve experienced joy and satisfaction while doing it. Even though they are inextricably linked. In fact, my mission isn’t completed yet. It’s being completed every single day. For all these years of working with the British and then as executive director for the Bulgarian “For Our Children” Foundation we succeeded in helping more than 14 000 children and families at risk. And we continue doing so.

But let’s go a little while back. I expressed my desire to work with the British organisation and help with their cause so that together we can help every child grow up in a safe and favorable environment. Throughout this process I learned that each kid can be saved from isolation, each kid can grow up in safe domestic background and also – that foster homes, in this form, are totally incapable of giving that to the children and have to be closed for good. My aim – then and now still, is supporting the idea of these children being brought up by relatives, adoptive parents or foster parents. That way the children can still maintain a relationship with the parents and maybe one day, even though this is almost impossible, the family will be reunited. After the British foundation decided to step back from Bulgaria the most natural thing for me was to continue with the efforts to help the children in need. As I often say – one can hardly stay indifferent to the blank stare in a foster child’s eyes. These kids’ eyes, of the abandoned and rejected by their families and society, are lacking light and dreams…

And that’s how our foundation came to life. We called it “For Our Children”, because we are all responsible to them and ensuring optimal conditions while growing up. And because all children are ‘ours’ – that’s the main and most important reason. That means real and strong support for the families; for the safe environment – the place where children should be being brought up surrounded by love, which is oftenly ruined by poverty or abuse and so many others. And that also means social commitment to establishing harmonious environment where every child has an equal chance of being loved and lives happily.

With time passing by I began to realize that how big the cause gets, depends directly on how many people I manage to persuade to believe in it, to pursue it with the same passion as me. This is how my next role was ‘born’ – a role which many unfairly call ‘managerial’. In my opinion, the person who leads an organization or a company must be, before all, an inspiration. Especially when it comes to a cause. Today there are around 100 people working at “For Our Children” and I know with all my heart that each one of them puts as much love and energy in their job as me. And for me, that’s mainly because I don’t treat the people that I work with as temporary ‘executors’ but as long term partners whose help is vital to the organization. More so, in my team, I only invite people who are truly aware that changes don’t just happen – they occur when we unite our ‘super powers’. Nobody can change the world on their own.

And while we speak of similarities, let’s see the differences compared to a business organization. If its success is measured by satisfied clients and numbers, here, at a charitable organization, translates into life changes, parents who have found the strength to face their fears and become parents. When “For Our Children” was found there were 35 000 kids accommodated in foster homes in Bulgaria. Today there are 400. Sure, these are just numbers – but what stands behind them are destinies which, as I’d like to believe, we’ve changed for good. And  we’re not stopping anytime soon.

When someone asks me “Aren’t you tired of all the emotions, the responsibility, the pressure, the sadness and all the difficulties?”, I try to explain it like that: in my world I’m not looking for obstacles, I’m looking for opportunities. In my world I see the love of children as main driving force of our society; I see the respect towards all differences as the biggest form of wealth for those who want to be successful. In my world, all the obstacles, insults, distrust of me and my mission can only act as s trampoline to much bigger goals. My biggest dreams, which have already come true, were born in the darkest hours. I will never forget this one time – an employee at the Ministry of Labour stated that it was no part of our job to close a foster home for babies and that “The Government” will take care of it… God knows when. And I am thankful to this man! A year after that all of the kids were brought out of there, thanks to many people, of course. I will never forget the Christmas of 2016, when me and my team saw the building empty for the first time. That is how it’s supposed to be. All children must be home for Christmas, they belong with their families, surrounded by love. Home is where they belong – every day, not only on Christmas day; with people that appreciate them the way they are. No more no less.

That is the exact purpose of my job. And that is what I’ve dedicated 20 years of my life to. And again, that is why my expertise inspires many to follow my example and invest in a happy childhood! But what are words without results? Results are what I share with my children and these of my surroundings.

I can’t wait to share ‘my success formula’ with all the women that are uncertain of whether they should be dreaming of something bigger and almost unthinkable. Nobody is bigger than their dreams! Women can achieve anything if we’re united and supportive!

Иванка Шалапатова
Ivanka Shalapatova
Ivanka Shalapatova is the CEO of “For Our Children” Foundation.The first Bulgarian to ever be appointed as Executive director of the British organization “The European Children’s Trust” in the year 2000. She is former Vice-president of the International Foster Care Oragnization (IFCO) and on the board of directors at a network of more than 80 non-governmental organizations which influenced the Child Rights Connect convention in Geneva in many ways. Ivanka Shalapatova is also former Vice-Minister of Labour (2003); Master of English and Bulgarian Phylology with many practices done throughout Europe. She has just finalized her Ph.D. in Social Sciences in August 2020 with a dissertation on “EU policies for education and care taking for children and their implementation in Bulgaria”.