Sergo Slavchov is the first member of his family in 10 generations to own land. And he has big dreams for his land on the outskirts of Montana, in northwest Bulgaria.
Slavchov and his wife, Daniella Evdokimova, are among the first participants in the Montana Church of the Nazarene’s compassionate ministry center called New Opportunities. The center, which officially opened this month, will provide education, assistance and opportunities for selected applicants to take advantage of Bulgarian and European Union grants and funds to start private businesses.
In 2009, Bulgaria entered the European Union, which opened the doors wide for Bulgarians to emigrate to other more economically healthy places in Western Europe. But Montana, which was the birthplace of Communism in Bulgaria, is the poorest region of the entire European Union. With widespread emigration, Montana’s population has fallen sharply from 70,000 to the 40,000s, with mostly the elderly and children left behind. This only worsened the poverty and lack of jobs.
Slavchov and Evdokimova are two of those who have remained. Roma by ethnicity, for the past five years they have attended the Montana Church of the Nazarene, where they became believers. The couple works six months out of the year for an Italian agricultural firm, picking berries and fruit when it is in season. That means during the remaining six months they are unemployed and must find odd jobs, such as gathering and selling walnuts.
When the couple heard about New Opportunities, they decided to pursue a new opportunity for themselves.
From 2015 through 2020, the European Union is releasing grants to help people start small enterprises in the areas of agriculture, food production and livestock. But many people, such as Slavchov and Evdokimova, are unaware of these grants, or would not know how to navigate all the legal and bureaucratic procedures in order to access them. That’s why New Opportunities is stepping up to help.
Valentin Kostov and Kameliya Munelska, members of the church who are running the center, helped the couple fill out applications, visit government offices to register as an independent agricultural producer and access start-up capital. With their government grant, Slavchov and Evdokimova have ordered fruit trees – apricots and plums – and purchased three acres of land.
“They say that’s not possible for a gypsy,” Slavchov said, referring to his new farm-owning opportunity. “I say, ‘Yes, it’s possible,’ and I want us to grow and I want us to have 100 decares (24 acres). I’ve had these dreams a long time. But I didn’t have the opportunity. Now I have the opportunity.”
New Opportunities plans to accept 30 people into the program each year. Ten of those will be age 29 or younger, and the other 20 people will be middle aged or older. The center will offer a class every two weeks, for a total of 24 classes per year, that will inform the participants about the opportunities available to them. They will also learn how to write a business plan, as well as important vocational skills and information necessary to start and run a small business. The consultants will walk the participants through all the steps necessary to start their business.
“Of course it is impossible for us to fix all of the problems that exist in this region, but the people that we can help, it will bring hope to them and it will make a change in their income,” said Kostov. “We are convinced this project will have an impact on our region and on this economically destitute part of the country. We believe it will help people in this area to be successful, not just for themselves but for further generations.”
New Opportunities held its grand opening for the community on 15 October, during which time the leaders, Kameliya Munelska and Valentin Kostov, introduced the concepts and information to nearly 60 guests who attended.
From left to right: Lili, Kameliya, Boyko, and missionary Jessica Morris. Lili and Boyko have a family apple farm and New Opportunities is helping them to write an expansion project for a refrigerated warehouse so that they can expand their small business. This expansion will allow them to do provide local jobs as they increase on-site production.
For many years the Nazarene church in Montana has been involved in a range of ministries to their community, such as visiting elderly people, running a soup kitchen to feed the hungry and more. But according to missionary Jessica Morris, who helped plan and open the center, New Opportunities is intended to present long-term solutions to the economic needs of their community, striking at the source of unemployment, hunger and poverty, rather than simply putting a bandage on its symptoms.