Lucy Dobreva, Clean Struma: How cleaning the river united people and changed them

This is Lucy Dobreva. She is a long-time member of the Harmonica team, and since last year she has devoted herself entirely to the new association we have created – Clean Struma. And because there are so many interesting things happening around Lucy and Struma, we thought it best to let her tell them herself.

Lucy, tell us how your involvement in Clean Struma started and what inspired you to dedicate yourself to this initiative?

Being part of the Harmonica team means believing in people, caring for nature, and working for good causes that make a meaningful difference in our society. And whether you’re in marketing, driving production, or an outreach salesperson – for each of us, the mission is to do more good and show that there are positive ways to live a more fulfilling life. The „Clean Struma“ initiative has been a long time coming as an idea, because Metodi’s stories about how polluted the river in the Kyustendil area is echoed between the office walls in informal conversations, during work meetings, even shared with partners…

Gradually we realized that if we do nothing, we support this assault on Bulgarian nature and one of our greatest treasures – Bulgarian rivers.

I am happy that my experience in marketing Harmonica put me in the middle of what was happening and so my heart was opened to Struma. I believe that we can do a lot for the river, for the people of Kyustendil, for our nature and for the future of our children. And so, for the third year now, I have no doubt that despite the difficulties, every step forward is worth it.

Harmonica and Clean Struma have achieved remarkable successes in these two years. What were the biggest challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

The challenges are not few. We have had moments when we literally didn’t know where to go, how to proceed, who to turn to with a question or for support. It’s a bit like being in pain but having no idea what kind of doctor you are. In the beginning we thought we would just go organized with people on the ground, clean up the river and go home. But we quickly realized that cleaning it up wasn’t going to solve the problem in the long run.

We realized that we had to find the active people on the ground, get them involved, work with them, trust each other. We realised that institutions can be a big force and know when and what needs to be done.

We understood that we need to be positive and understanding – not to blame, not to point fingers, but to look for a way to change the situation as a team with all „involved“. We learned a lot about waste – where it comes from, where it goes and how we can change its path so that it doesn’t cause so much harm. We found out what depends on whom.

And when you start to see the result of the efforts and more and more support – you sleep more soundly and realise you can cope.

In your opinion, which part of the Clean Struma initiative had the most significant impact on the communities around the river? Can you share specific examples or stories that are key and that you have remembered?

The fact that we didn’t give up, we didn’t walk away and we are still there – taking action, helping people make change happen, showing visible results. Not infrequently in the beginning we heard comments that our goal was to „do PR“ or promote Harmonica’s products. They looked at us with disbelief because it seemed strange to them that someone would solve such a huge problem that was turning rivers all over Bulgaria into landfills for free.

Our role was to unite the efforts of people, institutions, businesses, civil society organizations, even the media. And by standing convincingly behind the cause of a clean Struma River with the Harmonica brand, our personalities, skills and motivation – to build trust.

Impressive is the story of Nikolina and Angel from the village of Yabulkovo, whose house is right on the Banschitsa River, the key place from which we regularly collect and transport waste. There have been days when the space in front of their yard has looked like a garbage dump. It’s not uncommon to have excavators, trucks, and all sorts of people come in there – responsible for sorting and hauling this garbage away. The road that leads to their house is already up for repair because of the heavy machinery. But they have repeatedly shown us their support and know that this is temporary and is on a mission to keep the river clean in the long term. We are grateful to them from the bottom of our hearts.

Our work with the people of the local district. „Iztok“, which has a predominantly Roma population and is identified as the main culprit for polluting the river. To hear the stories of these people, to understand that they too are struggling with the problem, to be able to be their support and together achieve results that you had previously heard were doomed, impossible and made no sense. To be able to share these results with the wider community and see that there is a path to unity and collective action. It gave us a chance to integrate too, to no longer be those foreigners who come for dividends.

We have brought the different institutions to the same table and we are working together to keep the river clean. I literally feel happiness when I see both political and personal biases losing their meaning at this table. And I believe that this is a big step forward and contributes to the credibility of both these institutions and our actions.

With a growing number of supporters and volunteers, what are Clean Struma’s upcoming plans and goals?

Yes, the support gives us wings and makes us dream bolder.

Our main goal at the moment is to lay a solid foundation for the flow of pollution to the river to decrease. That is why we are investing time and effort in working with the community, with the schoolchildren, with the people in the villages, with the residents of the quarter. „Iztok“.

In the coming months, we will install a facility to capture and discharge the waste into the Banschitsa River. This project involves a great deal of energy from our team and all the institutions. The facility will stop the light recyclables, but also the heavier household waste and „take“ it naturally out of the river bed to a bulk cylinder for collection and removal once a week. This way the river will actually be cleaned periodically and not clogged.

We are also assembling a professional team of specialists to collect and sort the waste we take out of the river.

Children are the future and they bring the will to change in themselves. That is why we are currently holding class lessons with children in grades 4 and 5 from different schools in Kyustendil and together we are planning activities to clean up, encourage recycling and be more responsible about household pollution in the area. We believe that our chance is to involve children in the cause of clean Bulgarian rivers, and they in turn will teach their parents, friends, acquaintances.

We work locally and with the people living in the settlements along the river. We initiate local events and competitions for waste collection. We place containers for plastic and metal, but we also commit to their regular removal. Kv. „East“ is our main focus. Things are slower there, but there is a will to change. We support the clean-up of the neighbourhood with materials, communication and incentives, we try to discourage the dumping of waste in the river and we lobby for better conditions for waste disposal and removal in this neighbourhood.

We are also working on a documentary with the extraordinary Martin Grachowski, with which we want to present the whole project of cleaning the Struma River and sustainable change in the area. The project is about the change of the Struma River and the sustainable development of Kyustendil.

This is great, so many things! For the people who will want to support you with money or time, can you tell us how and why this support is important for the success of the initiative?

We all see daily how huge amounts of horrendous rubbish clog up Bulgaria’s rivers. And we know that the problem is very serious and will take time, perseverance and effort to solve. But it is worth it!

We know that we are not alone and that at every moment someone somewhere is doing something to take care of Bulgarian nature – our rivers, our wildlife, our air, our soil and our land.

Support gives confidence and pushes forward, it fights and builds bridges, it gets results!

The bigger this community, the faster and more permanently we will achieve the cherished goal of keeping Bulgaria’s rivers flowing clean.

Lucy, thank you very much and good luck in everything!

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