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One Heart Bulgaria
Deborah Gardner is shown with Boshidara in March 2009. The orphan that Gardner's group had tried to help was emaciated and covered with ants.

"Walking the halls of an infant orphanage in Sofia, Bulgaria, I heard the shrill sound of a screaming baby. Finding myself alone, I quickly opened the door to a small room where I found the baby frantic and trembling. His skinny arms and tiny fingers grasped desperately for comfort. It was against protocol for me to interact with the infant without permission, so I stood there, my heart breaking, and watched this tiny baby struggle. Where was the cozy blanket to swaddle his newborn body? Where were the gentle hands or soothing reassurances of his mother? This precious infant could not understand, and so he screamed on. He had not yet learned that no one would rescue him and that crying would bring no response. Soon he would give up trying, just like the other orphans lying quietly in their cribs. But until then, this tiny newborn was put in a room alone to scream himself into silence before being warehoused with the other soundless babies."Deborah Dushku Gardner

PROVIDENCE, Cache County — One visit to an orphanage in Bulgaria was enough to change the course of Deborah Dushku Gardner's life forever.

It was 1993, and Gardner was serving as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As she entered the neglected facility, Gardner was encircled by a throng of 3- and 4-year-old children, each of them crying, "Mama, mama," in the hope that she had come to take them home.

"That was really disturbing to me, to see all those children needing attention and love and not having anyone to give it to them," Gardner remembers. "I picked them up, as many of them as I could hold in my arms, and I thought, 'One day I'm gonna come back here and do something to change this.' "

Fast forward several years, and neither Gardner nor a former missionary companion, Heidi Glyn Barker, could shake the haunting pleas of those wide-eyed, motherless children. Coordinating a return trip to Bulgaria, the women, now wives and mothers themselves, made preparations to outfit the Sveta Paraskeva orphanage in Sofia, Bulgaria's capital city, with much-needed food and supplies.

"At that point," said Gardner, "Heidi felt like we needed to create a foundation, and we got the ball rolling. During that visit to Bulgaria, we met with government officials, and we created a sister foundation there. In March 2003, One Heart Bulgaria was born."

Since its inception, the Utah-based charity has opened its heart to more than 1,300 children in more than two dozen Bulgarian orphanages. Gardner's stories about these infants, toddlers and teens are compelling.

Serving orphaned children from birth through age 18, many of whom have chronic medical conditions and other special needs, One Heart Bulgaria provides them not only with life-sustaining supplies and services — food, clothing, medical and dental care — but also with intangible, life-enriching support like music classes, nurturing "grandmother care" and life skills training.

"We don't want to just merely keep them alive," Gardner explained. "We want them to have joy in their lives."

One of the most heartbreaking stories Gardner shares to illustrate the deplorable conditions facing many Bulgarian orphans involves a toddler named Boshidara. Born with hydrocephaly and spina bifida, Boshidara, which means "God's gift," had been abandoned by her mother at an orphanage in the city of Stara Zagora.

"Brown-eyed, chubby and beautiful" as an infant, Boshidara captured Gardner's heart, and One Heart Bulgaria facilitated surgery to have a shunt implanted to drain fluid from the 2-month-old child's brain. As she neared 2 years of age, Boshidara endured a second surgery, and Gardner returned to the orphanage to check on her progress.

"When I got there, I was deeply disturbed by what I found," she said.

Boshidara's muscles had atrophied completely, she was severely malnourished and she'd gone blind. Noticing blood on the child's tiny fist, Gardner gently pried her fingers open and was horrified to find dozens of ants seemingly feeding on her flesh. Frantic, Gardner examined the little girl further only to find more ants, crawling up and down her legs, in her ears and all around the pus-stained gauze on her head.

"It put me in a panic," Gardner said. "How could this be? There she was, this little hero just lying there barely alive … enduring," Gardner said. "And the staff didn't seem especially concerned. They looked at her as a lost cause anyway. But to me, she really was God's gift. Things like that are what we're trying to change."

Earlier this month, Gardner received word from Stara Zagora that little Boshidara had recently died. Though she is saddened by the toddler's loss, Gardner is at the same time relieved that the child no longer has to suffer.

Yet thousands of children like Boshidara are still in desperate need.

"Imagining the need could paralyze you," said popular LDS entertainer Sam Payne, who traveled to Bulgaria with Gardner last spring. "But once you put your hand to the plow, you realize how much good can come from the work of just a few people."

"Some orphanages are doing fine enough … and when I say that, I mean they're fine enough," Gardner said. "They're not necessarily thriving. And then you have other orphanages where it's like a huge dog kennel — cement everywhere, really thin blankets, very old rotting bedding, just plain macaroni noodles every day to eat. Very little health care. Very drafty and cold. The smell of urine's everywhere. So there's quite a spectrum. But none of the orphanages are doing fantastic. There's always need."

While One Heart Bulgaria has the infrastructure in place to accomplish more extensive humanitarian work in Bulgaria, the foundation faces the same roadblock as most nonprofit organizations — lack of money.

"There are currently 144 orphanages in Bulgaria and we're helping 25," said Gardner. "The only thing stopping us from reaching further is funding. We have staff in place, we have programs in place. If we just had the funding, we could get to all of them. And that's my goal."

On Friday, a "Courage to Shine" benefit concert for One Heart Bulgaria will take place at BYU. Hosted by Miss Utah 2009 Laura Chukanov, whose parents are Bulgarian, the concert will feature Payne, along with fellow musicians Peter Breinholt and Mindy Gledhill. Proceeds from the event will be used to bolster One Heart Bulgaria's music and grandmothering programs, funding salaries for music teachers, youth choir directors and "babas."

"Our music programs have had the biggest impact out of all of our programs, even over medical care and food," said Gardner. "The children live for music time. It brings them so much joy."

Having witnessed the positive impact music has on these children's lives, Payne is personally committed to further enriching their environments. "Certainly we're hoping to raise a certain amount of money with this concert," he said. "But along with opening people's wallets, we hope to open the doors of their hearts … to make a connection and perhaps plant a seed that will continue to grow."

"These little Bulgarian orphans are real children who have become invisible to the rest of the world in spite of the fact that Bulgaria has one of the highest orphan rates in all of Eastern Europe," said Gardner, "and this concert is my way of honoring these children and calling out for help."

If you go

What: Courage to Shine benefit concert, featuring Sam Payne, Peter Breinholt and Mindy Gledhill

When: Friday, March 5

Where: BYU Wilkinson Center Ballroom

Tickets: $10 or $40 per family; available at www.oneheart-bg.org or at BYU ticket office

e-mail: jchristensen@desnews.com