GFN Organizes International Service Project

Rice University Students Volunteer at the Bulgarian Food Bank

This summer a group of US college students traveled to Bulgaria to help the Bulgarian Food Bank (BFB) with their bi-annual food drive. This service trip was a “first” for GFN, a success for BFB, and a meaningful experience for the nine Rice University students who rolled up their sleeves and opened their hearts to help BFB feed hungry people in Bulgaria.

GFN organized the two and a half week service trip with Rice University’s Center for Civic Leadership (CCL). CCL’s mission is to foster engaged citizenship through integrated learning opportunities, and it serves as a model for creating mutually beneficial university-community partnerships that promote positive, sustainable change.

The project was conceived two years ago when CCL representatives met GFN’s Anthony Kitchen at our networking event – the World’s Fare – at the H-E-B/GFN Food Bank Leadership Institute in Houston. Rice proposed a student volunteer project. We saw this as an investment in the success of our member food banks and contacted select food banks in the network to gauge interest. BFB had the interest and the need, and the project became a reality.

The students spent a semester learning more about international service and the culture of volunteering. During the trip, the students learned about hunger in Bulgaria and BFB’s unique challenges due to a post-soviet culture that is only beginning to embrace the concept of volunteerism. They arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria ready to make a difference. Here is a quick look at their on-site activities:

  • Organized the BFB warehouse to make space for the food collected in the food drive.
  • Staffed food collection points at grocery stores during the food drive.
  • Worked directly with beneficiaries preparing and serving food at a soup kitchen and a day care center for disabled adults.
  • Exchanged experiences with Bulgarian students at the American College of Sofia.
  • Learned more about the country and its people on several cultural excursions.
  • Discussed their experience with the cultural attaché at the US Embassy in Sofia.

“Our food drive is a huge undertaking, and we would not have been able to manage it without the student volunteers who donated so many working hours in a short period of time,” said Tsanka Milanova, Executive Director, Bulgaria Food Bank. They were motivated and professional and offered some great feedback. We applied many of their ideas, and it greatly improved our process of collecting food.”

The project was a success from the CCL point of view as well. “GFN and Bulgaria Food Bank were co-educators in our students’ learning process. The experience exposed students to the culture, politics, and history of Bulgaria and showed them how food disparities impact the lives of people locally and globally,” said Lauren Caldarera, Associate Director of Rice University’s Center for Civic Leadership.

Rice students found numerous rewards from participating in the trip. For some, it provided a new perspective on giving back. “Volunteering is not just an act. It can be an attitude. If I care about something, I should make it part of my life, and not just something I’d go out of my way to do,” said participating Rice University student Amber Tong.

We would like to thank all the people who helped make our first student volunteer trip a success including the BFB, and the students and teachers who participated. We also thank our generous supporters H-E-B for helping the students with funds to offset some of the travel costs.

bulgaria copy“This trip was really a collaborative effort with many parties vested in its success,” said Anthony Kitchen, GFN’s Manager of Network Programs. “We hope to continue our relationship with Rice University and use this volunteer project as a model for future service trips.”