Thursday, September 25, 2008
Church aiding Bulgarian community
PARTNERS ACROSS THE ATLANTIC
By Marie Notcheva SPECIAL TO THE TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
Rev. Teodor Oprenov of Sofia and Wolf
After 39 years as a principal with Wolf Coach, Richard Wolf had earned a quiet retirement.
Instead, the Worcester man committed to helping orphans, Gypsies and the destitute families of Bulgaria.
Why would a successful businessman devote such energy to a country and a cause so far away? The answer lies with his father, Paul Wolf, who grew up in an orphanage in the U.S., and with a presentation he attended as a member of Worcester’s First Baptist Church.
Richard Wolf, second from right, and Ken Swenson, right, mission board chairman and head of TABCOM's Mission Explosion program, with four program volunteers in front of Nevski Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria.
The elder Mr. Wolf and his wife, Lois, had nine children. He started Wolf Coach in 1967 after a long career in the Air Force, intending to convert buses into motor homes. Instead, the company became a leader in mobile telecommunication, developing vehicles for the National Guard, state and local police, and roughly a third of the news vehicles in the U.S. It became part of L-3 Communications in 2002 and was moved to Ayer. Richard Wolf worked with his father at the company for many years, retiring this past June. Paul Wolf died in 1992.
The memory of Paul Wolf’s experiences as a youth in an orphanage combined with a program of The American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts just a few years ago to push Richard Wolf toward a new path in life.
In 2005, Compassionate Friends, a Littleton group, encouraged TABCOM to include Sofia Baptist Church’s Good Samaritan Foundation as part of its rotating mission support program. TABCOM raised $100,000 for the foundation, which is in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. A significant portion of this sum came from Worcester donors.
In 2006, as part of the program, the Rev. Teodor “Teddy” Oprenov spoke at First Baptist Church of Worcester, where Mr. Wolf is a member. Rev. Oprenov, better known as Pastor Teddy, is minister of the Sofia church. First Baptist held a benefit concert, at which the pastor’s daughter Ann-Marie Oprenova performed, as well as an auction, both of which provided considerable funding. AnneMarie, Pastor’s Teddy’s elder daughter, is now 16, and plays the violin at the master’s level, and this was her first international concert. The pastor’s younger daughter, Sophie, is 8.
In 2007, TABCOM completed its support commitment to the program, but Mr. Wolf promised Pastor Teddy that he would continue to help. After a trip to Sofia in 2006 that he describes as when he began his “process of learning,” Mr. Wolf fronted all the money to create Bulgarian Partners USA and to register with the IRS for 501(c)3 nonprofit status. The organization’s goal is to address the root causes of some of Bulgaria’s societal problems by providing education.
Richard Wolf said he sees his father when he looks into the eyes of the institutionalized children of Bulgaria. “As difficult as orphanages were in the 1920s and ’30s in the U.S., there are some similarly tough situations in Bulgaria,” he said.
He has concentrated his efforts on developing the American arm of Bulgarian Partners, a nonprofit that assists the Good Samaritan Foundation. The foundation started as a simple program created by Pastor Teddy and his congregation to distribute food to the impoverished of his country, as well as to minister in orphanages and train Romani, commonly called Gypsy, youths in job skills.
Mr. Wolf describes Pastor Teddy and his wife, Dimitrina (“Didi”) Oprenova, as “principled individuals with a mix of Christian faith and hard-nosed business sense.” He cited the plan for the center to rent offices to local businesses, charging enough to sustain the church’s humanitarian aid work, as an example of the couple’s business acumen. “That kind of realism, blended with faith in action, needs to be supported,” he said. The minister, who is widely respected among Bulgarian Christians for his uncompromising stance on the gospel message, is as passionate about social justice as he is about hermeneutics.
“As a pastor, and as a Christian, I cannot stand by and do nothing. To tell them that we believe in Jesus Christ, we must first show them what we believe,” the pastor contends.
The Good Samaritan Foundation has grown, and with assistance from British and American churches and individuals, is building a six-story complex to house a feeding station and soup kitchen, a job training center, an outpatient medical center, a library, a sanctuary and office space for businesses to rent. Wolf hopes the center will be operational by 2010.
The need for the program has grown as well. The economy of Bulgaria is not good. Since joining the European Union last year, inflation has driven the cost of living up dramatically, beyond the means of most Bulgarians — 36 percent of whom live below the poverty level. Bulgaria is the poorest EU member state, with unemployment among the Gypsies as high as 80 percent. The average salary is $150 per month, and many pensioners live on half that amount. Although 25,000 Bulgarian children are institutionalized (one of the highest rates in the world), the state’s budget to orphanages has been drastically reduced since joining the EU. Rev. Oprenov said last month that the government plans to shut down all the orphanages in Bulgaria by 2010 and “disperse” the children.
Another distressing problem in Bulgaria is human trafficking. According to a 2006 Europol Report, 10,000 girls in Bulgaria are forced into human trafficking each year. With little access to education and no job skills, girls (and boys) in the Gypsy communities and those in orphanages are most vulnerable.
Mr. Wolf continues to seek individuals and churches interested in partnership — which he describes as financial support and more — through informal talks at his church and a few area organizations. He is headed to Bulgaria again in October, and plans to use the information he gathers from that trip to complete a more structured presentation that he will take beyond his church community.
“To write a check is the first step,” he explains. “One of my goals is to help bring people together with the 21st-century tools of communication. Videoconferences bring us face to face with people over there — 21st-century pen pals,” he said. He added that when he does presentations about Bulgarian Partners, he closes by asking for viewers’ trust, as well as partnership. He maintains that the program is a partnership in bringing about change. “We’re not doing it for them; we’re partnering with strong Bulgarian people who want to help one another.”
Mr. Wolf and his wife, Denise, have two grown children, Stephanie Gaudette and Jonathan Wolf, who both live in Worcester.
For more information about Bulgarian Partners, visit http://bulgarianpartnersusa.org/Home.html.