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What is BEST?
Established in 2012 as the “Bulgarian Forensics League,” and incorporated in 2014 as a non-governmental organization, the BEST (Bulgarian English Speech and debate Tournaments) Foundation promotes citizenship education through speech and debate for Bulgarian high school students.
BEST is a thriving community committed to free, creative, and intelligent discourse. Our programs empower youth by giving them the opportunity to explore and engage with different ideas, apply what they’ve learned to their own lives, and eventually share their passion and thirst for knowledge with others. Ultimately, BEST seeks to redefine what “best” means: for us, success is not just about winning awards; success is a commitment and appreciation of lifelong intellectual and emotional growth.
BEST works alongside the Bulgarian education system to provide this unique space. Over the past 4 years, we have engaged more than 1000 youth and adults and 50 high schools in Bulgaria. In Fall 2016 alone, we had 508 student competitors and 194 youth and adult volunteers.
Read more about how BEST plays a crucial and unprecedented role in Bulgaria, and how YOU can support our work!
BEST and Bulgaria
Bulgaria is a beautiful country located in Southeastern Europe and a member of the European Union. It has a rich cultural heritage and intellectual history.
Did you know that the Cyrillic alphabet was invented in Bulgaria? Or that a Bulgarian invented the first computer? Education has always been important to Bulgarians; according to World Bank, Bulgaria has an astounding literacy rate of 98%!
Unfortunately, Bulgaria faces negative stereotypes. Its critics cite the lower standard of living compared to other EU-member countries, political upheaval and corruption, high unemployment, an average monthly salary of approximately $375, and surveys that rank the country one of the unhappiest places on earth.
However, while it is true that the Bulgaria faces many challenges, the BEST community is a shining example of how stereotypes can never really tell the whole story. Here are some examples of how BEST is changing Bulgaria, one step at a time:
- Newcomers to BEST often express their amazement at its participants’ positivity, can-do spirit, and love for art and for each other at tournaments and BEST events.
- In BEST, Bulgarian youth voices are amplified: we foster youth interpretation and creation of performance art, we train potential leaders in our Student Ambassadors Program, and we provide professional development to alumni through our Internship Program and Management Team. Even our merchandise features unique designs by our alumni!
- Through fundraising and recruitment initiatives, teams develop resourcefulness, marketing skills, and management skills.
- We empower local economies by choosing a wide variety of towns and cities as tournament host sites – bringing significant revenue to a town’s hotels, restaurants, and transportation companies during tournament weekends.
- We partner with schools, teachers, and other nonprofits to organize tournaments and trainings, and we pride ourselves on working alongside the Bulgarian education system, not in opposition to it.
- Our internal team is bi-cultural – with Bulgarians and Americans working side-by-side (only 1 full-time Executive Director and 2 part-time staff; everyone else is a volunteer).
- Our alumni go on to a wide variety of fields and universities in Bulgaria and around the world (on scholarships, we might add). Some have even told us that they still draw on the critical thinking and presentation skills they learned in BEST in their university classes.
BEST: 2013 to Now
BEST was originally called the “Bulgarian Forensics League.” It was started by a group of American Fulbright English Teaching Assistants who loved Bulgaria, but observed that many of their students did not have an adequate forum in the classroom to express themselves creatively and explore many new and different ideas. At first, our idea was simple: we wanted to use speech and debate as a fun way to teach our students English and help them develop critical thinking skills, creativity, confidence, and leadership.
Our first tournament in April 2013 featured 6 schools and approximately 100 participants.
As BEST grew each year, we began to see that Bulgarian youth were taking what they had learned in BEST to levels we never anticipated. They talked about how hearing a speech made them change their views; how BEST helped them overcome personal issues; how they finally found a space where they felt they could truly be themselves. They were mentoring and coaching younger team members, giving back to BEST as volunteers, and incorporating speech and debate into other areas of their lives.
And since that first tournament, we have had phenomenal growth:
- 300 participants, 23 schools, 118 volunteer judges
- Hosted 3 national tournaments, brought first Bulgarian students to compete internationally at US National Speech and Debate Association Tournament
- 500 participants, 35 schools, 133 volunteer judges
- Hosted 4 national tournaments, trained 30+ coaches, started Student Ambassadors Program, sent 7 kids to US to compete
- Became a registered non-profit, the BEST (Bulgarian English Speech and debate Tournaments) Foundation
- 520 participants, 37 schools, 155 volunteer judges
- Hosted 6 regional tournaments and 2 national tournaments, trained 30+ coaches, trained 18 new Student Ambassadors, sent 4 students to US to compete
- Started “Team Bulgaria” National Debate Team (10 students) and BEST Management Team Internship Program (2 students)
- Co-sponsored first “BEST-Fulbright” Fellow – a second-year Fulbright English Teaching Assistant who serves as Managing Director
- 2016-2017 (so far)!
- Held 2 regional tournaments at new host schools, with 687 competitors from 39 schools, as well as 62 youth volunteers, 151 adult volunteer judges, and 61 other adult volunteers
- Hired first-ever Executive Director
- Co-sponsored BEST-Fulbright Fellow to serve as Assistant Director
- Internship program increased to 5 students
- Trained 30 new Student Ambassadors
- Trained 92 youth and teachers from 41 schools to be coaches
In short, we’ve engaged nearly 1500 participants from across Bulgaria in becoming the BEST they can be, and we’re not stopping there.
BEST provides a platform for youth to use their beautiful voices – creatively, intelligently, and loudly!
Help BEST Become Even Better
BEST runs on a bare-bones budget. We need your help to ensure quality programming and educational opportunities to all Bulgarian youth! All donations will go towards the following core educational opportunities which BEST provides:
1) SCHOLARSHIPS – One of the components of the BEST model is providing need-based scholarships to enable students from across Bulgaria to attend tournaments. We do not want the financial burden of participating in a tournament to keep Bulgaria’s brightest students from engaging with creative artistic expression and intelligent debate. BEST remains committed to helping underserved families and schools.
2) TRAINING – During our daylong training seminars, we teach first-time coaches about each competition event (Original Oratory, Duo Interpretation, Prose, Poetry, and World Schools Debate) through hands-on, experiential learning. We also teach the fundamentals of team management and fundraising.
3) STUDENT LEADERSHIP – Each participating school has the opportunity to select up to 2 students each year to serve as Student Ambassadors to the BEST Foundation. These students are expected to serve as leaders for their clubs and local communities by helping to recruit and train new club members, and by organizing fundraising drives or projects to promote speech and debate in their communities. BEST hosts a fall retreat for SAs and provides year-long leadership development, mentoring, and assistance in their projects. In the past year, SAs have led fundraising bake sales, hosted a national debate tournament, organized a community showcase debate, and held Halloween parties to support their local clubs. The Student Ambassadors Program empowers students to lead their communities and make speech and debate part of local culture.
Sounds great. How can I help?
Click the icon below to donate to BEST by credit card through our fiscal sponsor, Salt Ventures. If you are a US donor, your donation will be tax-deductible. The payment system accepts Visa, Mastercard, Discovery and American Express:
How Else Are We Fundraising?
Every dollar counts! BEST operates through grants and crowdfunding efforts by our board and management team. Currently, our main sponsors are the United States Embassy-Sofia and the Bulgarian Fulbright Commission. The America for Bulgaria Foundation also funds one returning Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to serve as a “BEST-Fulbright Fellow” for one year.
We also value youth and teacher empowerment. This is how we raise funds locally:
Merchandise: Our beautiful BEST merchandise items – including T-shirts, stickers, notebooks, and other items – are ALL designed by our Bulgarian youth volunteer staff and interns, and produced by Bulgarian companies. We do this intentionally to empower local economies. New designs are created for each tournament and sold to participants.
Tournament Fees: We charge a 5-leva fee for each tournament participant. We strive to make tournaments as accessible as possible, but we also want students to feel that they are investing in an educational opportunity.
Tournament Fundraising Efforts: Our staff and interns come up with and manage tournament fundraising ideas, such as raffles, pie in the face, shaving heads, and carnival games. They also train Student Volunteers from tournament host schools to assist with the drives.
Team Fundraising Efforts: We train Student Ambassadors and teachers how to host local and international fundraising efforts to support team travel and accommodation that cannot be covered by our limited scholarship funding. We strive to teach financial and project management skills and instill an entrepreneurial spirit among all of our participants.
Past Fundraising Efforts
- 2016 – Successfully raised $12,000 USD via crowdfunding.
- 2015 – Successfully raised $16,000 USD via crowdfunding.
- 2014 – Successfully raised $6,000 USD via crowdfunding.
In Their Own Words: BEST is the BEST!
“BEST is the best because it makes me think BEST. Being part of the whole adventure has changed my attitude towards people and towards life as a whole. So far BEST has been a life changer for my students and for myself as well. It makes people do their BEST at any time, anywhere.” – Bisserka Alexandrova, a teacher, a mentor teacher, a chaperonе at Petar Bogdan FLHS, Montana
“BEST is the best because it is not just a competition. It is a community. Here students receive a chance to express their opinion, share their thoughts and be heard. They create art and learn to share it with the world. And most importantly, they create a big team of intelligent and compassionate people ready to change the future.” – Boryana Milenova, judge and former competitor from Simeon Radev FLHS, Pernik
“Best is the best because it broadens kids’ perspective and it gives them an outlet to express themselves that they don’t get in school.” – Reid Furubayashi, current ETA in Sofia
“I decided to participate because I really want to overcome my fear of public speaking, to be better at social interaction, to overcome my shyness. I also really want to meet new people and make new friendships. BEST gives me the opportunity to expand. It has helped me with my fear of public speaking. I’ve realized that even if I don’t perform well, I’m 100% okay with that fact. I don’t get stressed out that much anymore and I don’t get down.” – Dayana Baleva, former competitor from Pleven
‘BEST IS THE BEST BECAUSE it is the only thing that brings colour to the grey school curriculum. Life-changing as it is, BEST never fails to create unforgettable memories which you will nostalgically remember. BEST basically gives meaning to the superlative “best”. The name of the organisation is not a coincidence after all.’ – Todor Chergarov, former competitor from Bertolt Brecht FLHS, Pazardzhik
“BEST is the best because BEST is not about trophies, but friendships. BEST is not about speaking, but it’s about communicating. BEST is a thrilling journey, rather than a means to an end. BEST is all about inspiration, self improvement and dedication. BEST is the best because BEST is a family.” – Seda Radoykova, ACS
“BEST is the best because it brings the focus on public speaking skills which are generally disregarded and overlooked in most Bulgarian schools. BEST encourages young people to show their talent(s) and promotes creative thinking. I am really happy that I had the opportunity to be a part of the judges teams, and would be thrilled to have a chance to do it again. Thank you!” – Iliya Andreev, judge