Irina Zareva, Social Therapist, Kyustendil

Irina is a teacher by profession, but more than 12 years ago she left school and took a different path. Then, accidentally or not, her life brought her together with children who had never had access to a school classroom – they had just been brought out of the large state institution where they had lived hidden from society. Little did Irina realize then what a blessing it was for these children that life sent them exactly her – the teacher who stays with them to this day.


Tell us about your beginning at Cedar.

I’m a teacher by profession, and I also worked in the private sector until I discovered the foundation’s family-type houses at one point. Once I was approved I started working, but I have to admit, at the beginning, I had a lot of fears. I had read books, I had watched films about the institutions, but I didn’t know what the reality was in these new homes. On my first visit, I was very surprised by the good environment and the curious looks of the children. From the way they welcomed me, I understood that they need someone who understands them, smiles at them, and respects them. That’s when I told myself I had to try. And so, for 12 years now, I have been with them every day.

Was it difficult for you to make the change from teacher to social therapist?

For me, children are children. Whether it’s my 4th through 12th grade students or these kids here, it makes no difference to me. Their eyes are the same – every child is looking for closeness, a friend, a rescue from their worries. And whether they’re in school or a family-type residential centre, adolescents aren’t much different.

Of course, I’ve had difficult moments when I’ve wanted to leave. But the next moment I say to myself, ‘Why, what will I achieve if I leave? What’s the big deal, go ahead.” I feel that I have a responsibility to them and I’ve been with them – my friends – for so many years now.

What keeps you going through the tough times?

One is human when one has some responsibilities. If he has no responsibility for his family, or for his work, why is he human? This responsibility of mine towards the children here has kept me going for so many years. I like to take responsibility for everything, for better or for worse. The bad passes and I leave it in the past, but the good is with us every day and I choose to remember it.

Tell us something good from your work.

The best thing for me is that the children appreciate me, they wait for me and look for me. What’s better than seeing that I’ve taught these kids something? To me, they are human, they are people.

For example, Ilia keeps asking me what shift I’m working tomorrow – it’s enough for me that someone thinks about when I’m going to be at work. Sometimes in my own family, they don’t think about if I’m at work and when I’m home. And here I know they are waiting for me to come back. That’s very beautiful. Anyone who hasn’t experienced it or is afraid of this job should know that many moments make you get goosebumps. It’s really nice.

I am one of the first employees who started working here shortly after the children were moved out of the home in Gorna Koznitsa. Thinking of how everyone has developed so far and how independent they have become makes me feel happy. I know each of them and we have been through a lot. What could be better than to see how far they have come today, and what we have achieved together?

What do you like to do in your free time?

It’s filled with household chores – taking care of my family and loved ones, and I love to go for walks. I try to move around a bit more to stay in shape. I like to be in nature. I like to relax on my backyard swing where I collect my thoughts. I love going to the theatre with my son. 

Tell us something fun about your daily life with the youngsters.

The funny stories usually happen on field trips and summer vacations. I am happy when I see that these trips bring real enjoyment to the youth.

We recently had a hilarious story with one of them who had previously lived with a foster family. One day we noticed he was hiding from us and watching us. We realized he wanted us to play hide and seek. It was so much fun – we made a great game until late at night!

What motivates you in your work?

One of the things that motivates me is my understanding of the responsibility I have for my friends here at the house – the young people with disabilities. I’m also motivated by their reactions, I’m motivated by their good attitudes and I’m motivated by the fact that I have understanding colleagues. I am very grateful to them because without them I am zero. We are like a family, like birds of a feather – we cannot do without each other. I hope to see more and more young people in our profession because it needs new energy.


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