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Helping Silistra orphanage

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



Berni and Dougie 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 part 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.