The kids spend the whole morning here playing, drawing, learning, doing exercises, taking care of the strawberries in the garden. At noon, their parents and grandparents appear again and take them home.
However, neither the children nor the Karin Dom are in any way ordinary. Every one of the 30 or so children who visit the centre every day was born with a disability that prevents them from attending a mainstream nursery or primary school. Some have cerebral palsy and others autism; the range of conditions is quite wide, but all are united in their common search for solutions. Bulgaria still lags behind many countries in providing proper treatment for such children and help for their families. Many paediatricians are ill-trained to spot such conditions at an early stage. Day care centres are few. Parents get little help from the state, so many families leave their children in state run "homes for disabled children." In some of these places, staff struggle against the odds to care for the children properly but, as a 2007 BBC documentary showed, in some of them children die of malnutrition and neglect.
Karin Dom is the complete opposite. Since its opening in 1996, the centre has been providing daily care for children with special needs – as a policy, stigmatising terms like "invalids" are a no-no – and their parents. The majority of the children are from Varna and its environs, but there are also some from other parts of Bulgaria and a few from abroad.
For several years now, the Varna Municipality has been partly funding the Early Intervention Programme at the centre. Aimed at babies and children up to the age of four, its task is to diagnose disabilities at an early stage. However, the Karin Dom Foundation, which runs the centre, is still heavily dependant on private donations and fees.
In Karin Dom, care for the physical and psychological health of children is combined with the latest generation of educational theories. A dedicated team of a paediatrician, psychologists and physiotherapists, social workers and special needs teachers work for the centre. The grandmothers of some of the children have been trained to provide proper care at home and the parents' support group gives them hope that they are not alone in their struggle with their child's disability.
There are also the volunteers – the swimming and music teachers, the specialists from the UK and the Peace Corps. Karin Dom is also a training ground for medical and social work students.
According to their abilities, children in the centre have group and/or individual classes and physical and psychological therapies. Here, they learn to walk and speak, to tell the grainy structure of salt from that of sand, to take care of the plants in the garden, to help with the housekeeping, and to express themselves. The latter is possible even for children who do not talk through the use of pictorial cards, depicting the food the child might want to eat or what they might want to do, or how they are feeling. Karin Dom also actively applies the Montessori method of learning through play.
The afternoons in the centre are child-free. This is the time when the Karin Dom team learns new techniques and methods, often from guest lecturers. The latest training course was held by Dr David Allen from Portland State University on early intervention and special education. The staff of Karin Dom also train colleagues from other Bulgarian organisations. In 2011, for example, 186 social workers from 32 organisations from all over Bulgaria attended courses in the Karin Dom.
The results are astonishing. From 1996 to 2011 Karin Dom offered help to 1,162 children and 179 of them have successfully continued their education in ordinary or specialised nurseries and schools. The numbers of trainees and volunteers for the same period are 1,352 and 355 respectively.
The story of how Karin Dom came to be is as remarkable.
Ivan Stancioff is the force behind Karin Dom Centre
In 1993 the Bulgarian diplomat Ivan Stancioff regained his old family house in Varna.
The sumptuous villa in the Sea Garden was built in 1908 for the huge family of Dimitar Stancioff (1863-1940), one of Bulgaria's finest diplomats and Ivan Stancioff's grandfather. Ivan Stancioff's father left Bulgaria with his English wife and his children in 1943. The next year the Communists seized power, killing and repressing the "bourgeois" Bulgarian elite. The villa was nationalised and turned into a vacation house for the Navy.
After the collapse of Communism in 1989 Ivan Stancioff returned to Bulgaria. He became the ambassador to London in 1991-1994 and the foreign minister in the 1994-1995 caretaker government. This coincided with the restitution of the grand villa in the Sea Garden.
Today, as at the turn of the 20th Century, this part of the Garden is Varna's most exclusive neighbourhood. Land is like gold dust, and in recent years many large residences and apartment blocks have been built for the city's nouveau riche. Stancioff could easily have sold the old family villa.
Instead, he turned it into the heart of the Karin Dom charity foundation. It was established in 1994 and two years later the centre welcomed its first children.
The foundation is named after one of Stancioff's cousins. Her name was Karin and she suffered from cerebral palsy.
ELENA'S SUCCESS STORY
Elena Koleva, a 17-year-old from Varna, is one of the children who Karin Dom has helped through the years. Elena suffers from cerebral palsy and first visited the centre at the age of one. Since then she has grown into a strong and ambitious young woman, who's endured a lot but has also learnt to accept her condition as anything but a limitation. In 2012 she published Empress Elena, a romantic short novel. "Although the things I write about are just figments of my imagination, I hope that some day some of them might happen to me, Elena says. And yes, I do hope that I'll find the kind of real love that exists between my characters."
Currently, she studies at the First Language School in Varna with a focus on German. Elena considers the possibility of becoming a fulltime writer in the future but for the time being her desire is to continue studying German at university.