An Incredible Peterborough Couple Transforming Children's Lives

Views on BG | October 27, 2009, Tuesday // 15:07|  views

Berni and Dougie Legget from Peterborough who decided to help at an orphanage in Bulgaria. Photo by Georgi Mabee

By Ann Molyneux-Jackson

Peterborough Evening Telegraph

Ann Molyneux-Jackson met Bernie and Dougie Leggett from Peterborough who decided to help an orphanage, close to where they take their holidays in Bulgaria.

When they decided to help an orphanage, close to where they take their holidays in Bulgaria, Bernie and Dougie Leggett from Orton Goldhay in Peterborough could not have imagined the impact it would have on their lives. Ann Molyneux-Jackson reports:

BERNI and Dougie Leggett bought a holiday home in the lush and green Bulgarian countryside to get away from it all and to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of rural life.

With just a radio to keep them in touch with what was going on in the outside world, no street lights and very little traffic, they saw their little bolt hole, near the town of Silistra, and close to the shores of the River Danube, as a place to put their feet up.

But since buying the house in 2005 and having it renovated, the couple have spent little time relaxing there.

Before long, they had met their neighbours, the villagers and then became aware of the Dimcho Debelianov Orphanage, just a few miles away.

"We had been going to Bulgaria for a good few years on holiday, we just fell in love with the country, but we realised it wasn't a rich place and people didn't have much," said 51-year-old Berni.

"So every time we went we would take something back for the children."

She added: "We have a Bulgarian school teacher friend, called Nellie Gospoplinova, who spoke English and we asked her if there were any orphanages in town, and she found Dimcho Debelianov for us.

"We found out what they needed, which was mostly jumpers, clothes and shoes."

But then what had started as the desire to bring a few items of clothing, to help the needy and to give to orphanages, escalated beyond their wildest dreams.

On their return to England, the pair began collecting clothes, toiletries and toys for their next trip to Silistra, scheduled for 2008, but this had to be delayed for several months when 61-year-old Dougie had a heart attack, and just afterwards Berni was rushed to hospital.

In this time, the couple received more donations including items from Freecycle in Peterborough, a non-profit making group trying to get good items reused rather than sent to landfill, after Berni posted an appeal for clothes, shoes and toys on their website.

But they had to abandon their previous plan to load up a huge trailer Dougie had built with the intention of filling it with goods and driving over to the former Communist country, because there was just too much stuff.

Having come so far, they had no other choice but to dig deep into their own pockets and pay £2,000 for a Bulgarian company to transport all the items in a lorry in October 2008.

With Dougie unable to fly, Berni doing most of the driving and a sat-nav to direct them, the couple set off on the 2,418 mile journey, which took them through Germany, Austria, Hungary and Romania, by road. Three days after leaving their home in Winyates, Orton Goldhay, Peterborough, they arrived at the orphanage for the first time.

"I don't think they have many strangers visiting and I think we were the first people who had ever done anything like this for them," said Berni.

"Once they got used to us, they were coming up and touching us and cuddling us. They loved having their photographs taken. They don't have much at all, but they are lovely children, so friendly and so happy."

Dougie added: "We had two boxes of toys with dinky toy cars, teddy bears and just a few dolls.

"We also had some football shirts, mostly Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea ones, and of course they had heard of them."

Along with the more practical items, Dougie and Bernie took two rucksacks packed full of sweets for the children.

Berni tried to speak a few words of the language and she had a great response to her efforts.

"Because I spoke to them in Bulgarian, they cheered and screamed," said Berni.

"I cried for days and Dougie was as bad.

"When you see the smile on those children's faces, it means everything."

The orphanage, where 101 children, aged between six and 18, live is named after a famous Bulgarian poet, and was once home to Todor Jivkov, the former Bulgarian Communist leader.

The building has been renovated and adapted, but is still very basic. It has 15 bedrooms with six bunk beds in each, a living room about the size of a hallway and stone floors throughout.

After a month-long stay in Bulgaria during which time they visited the orphanage several times, Berni and Dougie returned home determined to continue helping their new friends.

"This year we got even more things, because we knew what they wanted," said Berni.

"They needed stationery, boots, trainers, clothes and toiletries."

Berni also put her powers of persuasion to good use, managing to secure several boxes of clothing, trainers and shoes from High Street stores, including Next, Gap and JJB Sports, and school things from John Lewis. Local company Snowdens donated a 40ft marquee, to be used as a recreation room at the orphanage.

"We must have had 100 e-mails back saying, 'we can't help', but then we got 50 bags of clothes, shoes and underwear from Gap, two or three boxes of stuff from JJB Sports and school things, trainers and shoes from John Lewis.

"Then we had to sort it all out into sizes and pack them into age groups."

Berni also secured the help of Captain Richard Cutworth and the Territorial Army, in Peterborough, who got soldiers at other barracks involved, collected goods from miles around and allowed the couple to store hundreds of boxes for their next trip at their headquarters in London Road.

Volunteers from Freecycle also got involved collecting items and helping with moving them after Berni put another appeal on their website.

But the couple didn't stop at helping the children at the Dimcho Debelianov Orphanage.

Within a short distance of their home in Silistra, they heard from their Bulgarian friend Krassimir Dobrevo that there was a baby orphanage, a home for the elderly, a hospital, the Dr Tania Stoikova Orphanage and villagers in need.

So they decided to collect items for these as well.

A generous couple in Chatteris donated a mobility scooter to the cause, but as this would have been expensive to run in Bulgaria, it was sold, with their blessing, and three new wheelchairs bought for the Silistra Hospital with the proceeds.

Berni and Dougie also managed to get more wheelchairs, zimmer frames, walking sticks and one large box of spectacles for the home for the elderly, clothing and boots for villagers and baby clothes and toiletries for the baby orphanage.

This time, with twice as much as they had before, there was only one way of getting the goods to Bulgaria, so they bought some space in a 40ft articulated lorry, raising money from car boot sales, packing shopping at supermarkets and other charity events, including a fun day organised by Orton Line Dancers, which raised £200, to cover the cost.

Berni and Dougie began their latest month-long trip in September and although they have only just returned to their city home, they are already planning a fund-raising car boot sale.

"We didn't have a holiday at all, apart from one afternoon where we went out for a drive," said Berni, a call centre worker for Diligenta in Peterborough.

"Everyone wants us to be guests in their houses, and when we are at home, people come to us, the mayor comes and people just pop in."

At Dimcho Debelianov, a party was held in their honour, with the director inviting people from the newspapers, television and radio along.

"They are amazed that English people want to come to their country and give to children that they do not know. Charity is something they don't know of yet," said Berni.

This year, the couple also delivered 106 lovingly prepared shoeboxes, which the children will open at Christmas.

"All of the children had a box of their own, and they were all decorated," said Berni.

"So every child will have something to open on Christmas morning.

"It would have been lovely to have been there to see them open them," said Dougie.

The couple also delivered two 50-litre boxes full of sweets.

Having visited the baby orphanage and Silistra Hospital, the couple have decided that they have all they need, and now intend to focus their efforts on the Dimcho Debelianov Orphanage and the home for the elderly.

Despite their hectic schedule in Bulgaria, Berni and Dougie have vowed to return to the country for another trip in September or October next year.

Dougie, who has had to give up his job as a white van driver because of his heart problems and diabetes, doesn't see that as a reason to give up on this cause that still means so much to him and his wife.

The couple's next goal is to raise money for wood flooring and 15 internal doors at the orphanage.

"We are just trying to focus on getting sufficient funding to pay for the flooring and the doors," said Dougie.

"But they are still going to need stationery, clothes, trainers and shoes. The winters are very bad and the summers very hot, and things have got to last all year round."

They keep in touch with many of the children at the Dimcho Debelianov Orphanage on Skype, particularly one 18-year-old called Emo, who has taught himself to speak English, watching Bulgarian films with English subtitles, and often acts as a translator when they visit.

The couple also know that there is an orphanage for children with disabilities in Silistra, but no one will tell them where it is. But with the dogged determination that has already seen them achieve more than they could ever have imagined, Berni and Dougie are sure they will eventually track it down and extend their kindness to the children there.

They also dream of funding a Bulgarian English teacher, which would cost £3,000 a year.

"If the children can speak English, they stand a better chance of getting a job when they leave the orphanage," said Berni.

"They have nowhere to go when they leave, so another option is to look into that, but there is only so much we can do."

But knowing what they have achieved so far, you wouldn't bet against Berni and Dougie making these dreams a reality.

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Tags: Dimcho Debelianov, Todor Zhivkov, Peterborough, orphanage, Silistra


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