Think of former Soviet Republic member states and the mind’s eye often goes gray, envisioning grim concrete structures, downcast people, despair that seems to hang like a fog over the landscape.

The reality is often quite different—beautiful, vibrant countries with great historical architecture and artifacts and people that are hopeful about their futures. Such is the case in Bulgaria, currently the poorest of the European Union countries but one that is evolving and emerging.

It is an area of the world that has captured the attention of Dr. Jean Hatcherson, an assistant professor teaching cultural anthropology at Western Connecticut State University (WCSU) in Danbury. A lifelong humanitarian and inveterate traveler, she became intrigued by the potential of young Bulgarian women that is being unlocked through the efforts of a summer youth camp developed by Peace Corps volunteers in 2000, now known as Leadership Academy GLOW.

An all-volunteer, all female-run program, it is dedicated to empowering young Bulgarian girls through peer leadership training. “I’m interested in the social, economic and political aspects of inequality, particularly in regards to gender, health and education,” said Dr. Hatcherson, adding, “I believe in providing people with opportunities for experiential learning.”

For many years she has worked with colleagues in the humanitarian field to take students and others on service learning and travel study trips to Asia, South America and Africa. That was the vehicle that led to her discovery of Leadership Academy GLOW.

“I had a regional winter program in Asia and was looking for something in summer time for students and other volunteers,” she said. “Through the Bulgarian American Society I found out more about Bulgaria and was introduced to Tsvetta and Margarita Kaleynska, and thus began my association with GLOW.”

An exploratory trip to Bulgaria by the professor revealed it to be a “beautiful country topographically,” but one that is “still plugging its way out of the transition stage” from communism.

“Bulgaria was under Turkish rule for 500 years and was really at the crossroads of history. There is tremendous architecture and historical culture there, but after the Turks, they had only 30 years of independence before the Soviets came in—they haven’t had much experience with independence,” she explained.

“After the transition [from being Soviet member states] all those countries went through a terrible time. Bulgaria had an exodus of people looking for work elsewhere. When I left there last spring there were a lot of protests going on,” she reported. “People were filling the streets and holding the government hostage. There is so much corruption and people are really demanding a new government.”

Her exploratory visit satisfied her about the validity of the work being done by GLOW, however, a program originally created by Peace Corps volunteers. “The Leadership Academy GLOW program is a perfect fit as my academic interests include issues of gender equality and female empowerment. After several meetings and email exchanges with Tsvetta and Magy, I was able to travel with three volunteers to Bulgaria in the summer of 2012,” she reported. “We assisted the GLOW staff in their camp activities. In 2013, we were five volunteers from the U.S,” she said, adding that she is organizing a third excursion this summer for students and volunteers this summer.

The Peace Corps left Bulgaria in June 2013, and Dr. Hatcherson’s volunteers are now the only American helpers, the first non-Peace Corps volunteers to work with GLOW.

“Leadership Academy GLOW is a seven-day empowerment camp for girls,” she said. “The Peace Corps started it around 2000 because of the sex trafficking in the area. They wanted a camp to educate girls about these things and how to become active citizens in their country. The Peace Corps turned it over to Bulgaria last year when it was exiting, and some young women who were GLOW campers are now running it. Leadership Academy GLOW was chosen as one of the best things the Peace Corps had established there.”

She said that Bulgaria is still a patriarchal society where men make the decisions. “Even though you will find women doctors and women in leadership positions, men are the decision makers. In Bulgaria women are good at managing—when there is a crisis, the men bring women in, but when the crisis is over it is still very much a man’s world. When a girl has her first serious boyfriend, there is an assumption this is the guy she will marry. Part of what GLOW is saying is, ‘This is lovely if it is what you want, but there are other options as well.’ The camp is working to show girls there are other things they can do.”

This is particularly important, she said, for girls who come from small villages. “In this country we meet new people all the time,” she said, “but in small Bulgarian villages you are with the same people all your life. Families are very close. To meet people from other parts of Bulgaria is very interesting for the girls—it’s an important experience. There is a network that is established that continues after camp is over.”

The volunteers that Dr. Hatcherson takes with her to Bulgaria include university students, college professors and corporate professionals. Mostly women—there is one male volunteer—and aged 18 to 70, each hopes to inspire the Bulgarian girls through socialization, conversation and instruction.

For example, she said, an education specialist from WCSU, Dr. Darla Shaw, led a seminar on fund raising and public speaking in 2012. She organized an alternative “Cinderella Night,” where the girls rewrote the ending of the fairy tale, keeping in mind that in the end you cannot depend on a fairy godmother or a handsome prince to save the day.

Betsy Thomas, a longtime life coach, inspired the girls in 2013 to dream big, using vision boards as a tool. A corporate trainer from The Hartford, Patty Jensen, used her seminar leadership training to prepare the campers for a debate. Finally, university students participated in team-building activities, ice-breakers and everyday socialization, including leading exercise classes and morning walks.

The Americans benefit, too, through their exposure to another culture and the rich heritage of Southern Central Europe. “Our day-to-day, side-by-side activities provide occasions to learn about gender, culture and life chances for young girls growing up in a post-communist, South Central European country,” Dr. Hatcherson said. “What we bring home to our schools, workplace and families is knowledge and experience of not only social norms but of history, economics and politics, too. We have a chance to see ourselves through the lens of others—young people whose ideas of America are shaped by the news, social media and music videos. Sometimes this reflection can be surprising and challenging.”

She said she is currently working with two high school English teachers in Connecticut to develop an educational exchange of ideas, perhaps to even bring high school students from the U.S. to be campers at GLOW. Former volunteers are also interested in being GLOW counselors next year. In addition, recruitment is underway for more American volunteers.

Such ventures are nothing new for Dr. Hatcherson, who has been involved in humanitarian volunteerism for decades. She has visited some 65 countries through her educational and volunteer work with groups such as Americans for International Aid; the International Mission of Hope, Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity, the Tom Dooley Foundation/Air InterMed and more.

Her volunteer services have included bringing medical supplies and donated clothing to overseas orphanages and refugee camps in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Afghanistan, India, Korea, Colombia, Thailand and Guatemala and escorting children adopted by Americans from their home nations to their new families in the U.S. She has also been a foster parent to children from Ethiopia and Nicaragua who came to the U.S. for medical treatment.

For the Tom Dooley Foundation, she served on a three-month assignment as a non-medical volunteer on a vaccination team, traveling on foot to remote Himalayan villages in Gorhka District, Nepal.

She is founder and executive director of Humanitarian Travel Abroad, LLC, (humanitariantravelabroad@gmail.com), which provides international humanitarian opportunities for students and other non-medical volunteers in countries such as India, Vietnam, Laos, and Bulgaria; and is a volunteer and founding board member of Hearts Around the Word (www.hearts-aroundtheworld.org), which supports medical and cardiovascular training programs in Third World and emerging nations through hands-on education and demonstrations.

“It’s a complicated story,” she said. “I have done a bunch of things. For 20 years I’ve managed volunteer surgeons and operating room personnel on short-term international excursions. I eventually completed my doctorate in medical anthropology and started designing trips with students in mind. Then their families started to want to come along. I am utilizing a network of people I have met over the years, with an emphasis on unique little programs in underserved groups where we can feel like we are making a contribution. I feel like I want to work with these girls.”

Read more about The Leadership Academy GLOW program by going to www.bulgaria21.net.