Profile: Anissa Paulsen
Many Peace Corps Volunteers find that some of the most memorable achievements of their service had little to do with the "official" assignment, but rather emerged out of a unique interplay between the needs of their community and their own interests and talents. Such is the story behind the colorful "My Bulgaria" children's art exhibit currently on display at the San Francisco Peace Corps Office.
Anissa Paulsen was teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in a secondary school in Momchilgrad, a city in southeast Bulgaria, as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1994-96. The beautiful mountainous landscape of her region compelled her to send postcards home, but there were none available.
Thoughts of home, art and her own Bulgarian students led her to form a small postcard committee which organized a Bulgarian national children's art competition. Contest posters were circulated throughout the schools in Bulgaria, and within a few months they received 800 entries.
"Seeing all of those pictures, I realized that we could produce only nine postcards and there were so many other pictures I wanted people to see," said Paulsen. The committee decided to have a showing in the town's cultural center of the 50 works the committee selected and open the show on International Children's Day. It was quite an event, with the students serving soft drinks and wafers and the townspeople attending in large numbers.
"It seemed a shame to have only Momchilgrad see the exhibit," Paulsen thought, so the show toured other cities and towns in Bulgaria. Paulsen ended her two years of teaching and came home, bringing with her the postcards and many of the selected pictures.
When she heard that the president of Bulgaria was coming for a state visit, she contacted the Stanley Foundation and received funding to frame 21 of the pieces. They were displayed in the White House on the day the Bulgarian President visited and then went on to the Capital Children's Museum in Washington, DC, and to a variety of other locations around the country.
"I am so happy that Americans will have a chance to learn about Bulgaria and see what the children are capable of," said Paulsen. "You read about the Czech Republic, Poland and the Ukraine, but because of the (poor) economy in Bulgaria, many people in the United States know nothing about the good things there. I love the people. They are really generous and hospitable, and their country has a happy and alive future ahead of it."
The exhibit takes you through the hills and valleys of Bulgaria, from the snowy peaks of the Balkan Mountains to the famed Valley of the Roses. It leads you through significant events in Bulgarian history, including the country's period under the Ottoman empire and its current democratic government. It introduces you to Bulgarian traditions such as folk dancing, crafts, and holidays. It allows you to explore the cobblestone streets and beautiful architecture found in its historic cities and villages. Finally, it invites you into the hearts of Bulgaria's children, to give you a sense of the warm character of its people.
Paulsen's love for Bulgaria takes her down many other avenues of interest. Not only does she maintain connections with her Bulgarian students and friends through letter writing, but in 1998 she also founded Friends of Bulgaria, a group whose mission is "to support Bulgaria-related projects...and to serve as a Bulgaria information resource...thereby bringing [Bulgaria] back home [to the United States]." Currently she works at the California Historical Society of San Francisco as the Education and Outreach Coordinator.
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