From USA to Macedonia: why the Steads came to volunteer in Skopje

With their two small Maltese, the retired North American couple is already used to move around – after living in the Bahamas for five years, their latest choice was Skopje, Macedonia. Edward Stead and Elen Wright-Stead are looking forward to helping out as they can in a foreign country while they enjoy the landscape and history of the region.

The drive to volunteer has accompanied both for most of their lives. With a list of places they have lived in – and done volunteer work in – still growing, Edward Stead and Elen Wright-Stead have a new addition – Macedonia. After several locations in the United States and a dream-come-true moving to the Turks and Caicos Islands, in the Bahamas, the North American retired couple decided to move to Skopje about six months ago. Traveling around and getting to know the history of the area is also on their To-Do list.

When they asked themselves “what’s the next thing we want to do?”, moving to Macedonia, 9 thousand kilometres away from that beautiful tropical island, was not the typical answer.“We travel places for no reason”, explains Elen Wright-Stead to VOICES. “We’re just ‘you know what, try it, and if we don’t like it, there’s always a plane’”, she says while shrinking her shoulders. Edward confirms that this moving is part of an expansion of their horizons by nodding his head. “We came here and we like it. The day we don’t like it continuously, we will probably go someplace else and try something else – as you get older it is more difficult to do that”, the former police officer points out.

Despite acknowledging that moving is somewhat stressful, with all the luggage and the two small Maltese they have, the couple, married for almost 25 years now, seems happy in their new home. Their open-mindedness and will to explore allowed them to move to many places without being trapped and to make untypical decisions on various occasions – such as getting married six months after they met on a blind date.

They found out about Macedonia when Elen’s son got married to a Macedonian, about four years ago. After that, the Steads kept coming to visit once a year and they felt so welcomed that they moved to Skopje. “They don’t even live here anymore”, says Elen amid laughter, “but we had found it so nice, genuine, warm and family-oriented… we love it, we really do”. “I really like the food”, admits Edward, with one of the little dogs in his lap, with a smile. “I was pushing Macedonia a little bit more than Elen because I really wanted to use it as a base to travel – to go to Turkey for a week or two, to Cyprus, to Malta and this is a nice base”, Edward explains.

Besides, the couple is looking forward to “give back”. “In America, we do a lot of volunteering, is kind of expected”, begins Stead. The New Yorker has done volunteer work all his life – from the common Boy Scout to the California Highway Patrol (CHP) 11-99 Foundation when he was working as a police officer. Besides this last organization (which assists CHP employees and their families – “11-99” is the radio code for “officer needs assistance”), Stead also donated time to “schools, to disabled children”, since the Police Force where he worked for around 20 years volunteered as an institution.

“Even at a young age you are kind of expected to help when you can”, explains Edward. “And yes, Americans can be very selfish and they make a lot of movies about that, but even the selfish people give. They may be selfish with their time but they give money, for example, if they have that. But it all equals out: you do what you can, when you can”, he concludes. Volunteering after being retired is also common, since there is time to give – Stead has the example of his father that after being retired worked even more for he volunteered every day.

Most of the volunteer work that Elen did was after getting her university degree – she worked with St. Joseph’s Hospital, the Ladybug Foundation and other organizations in New Jersey. After being a chef for about 35 years, the New Jerseyan focused primarily on volunteering after retirement – more concretely in Provo Children’s Home, in Turks and Caicos Islands, with a “lot of food drives and a lot of cooking”. Edward explains that there were some “group homes for homeless kids and Elen would just drop off food, big cookies and Halloween sweets, bring baskets over”.

“We tried to uplift the kids for the holidays too”, adds Elen. “Because they didn’t really have anywhere else to go. Sometimes, they would say ‘would you like to take a child for Christmas morning?’ and I thought ‘just for Christmas morning? That’s sad, what about the whole week?’”, she tells with a big smile. “We would do things like a big Halloween, so they could come over. I would order candy from all over and just have big candy bars so the kids felt really special”, Elen shares affectionately.

But food was not the only focus. For a Christmas feeling during summer, Elen would donate clothes and buy certain items specifically for the young girls. Because of this, hearing “your luggage is so many pounds over” from the airlines was not something new – her answer was a sigh and an “ok, how much is it going to cost me?”. “I don’t care because these are not even for me, they are for the kids”, says Elen.

Now retired and (again) in a different country, the will to continue to help remains. And for that, they found Volunteers Centre Skopje. “The volunteers that we have met are so energetic about being a volunteer”, comments Edward about the good feeling they had towards the people. “We call them the army”, Elen admits laughing. “Also, VCS has been around awhile – 15 years – and they seem to be a bigger organization”, says Edward who gives preference to older and more solid organizations since “they usually are a little bit better organized”. His wife agrees. “There are many charities in the United States that sometimes you give money to and you don’t know where it’s going. So we thought it had a very well-rounded situation and we thought it would be really awesome”, Elen completes.

“We will help out in what we can. Sometimes it will be with school supplies, other times it will be working with VOICES, other times maybe me helping setting stands”, enumerates Edward. Elen completes with the key-word: diversity. “We will keep it diverse because I think that we are ‘mature’ now – we don’t use the ‘older’ word”, she says laughing, “so we have different things to bring to the table”. 

Besides the people, the couple is very enthusiastic about the city itself – especially Edward. “I like the statues”, he admits. Something that also got the couples’ attention was the street dogs. “They look healthy”, Elen says. “Where we came from, you see dogs starving to death”, shares Edward. The urban landscape is also a plus. “I know it’s an older look that’s being taken away slowly as they redo buildings, as they reface them, so I find that very interesting. The buildings show the history”, Edward explains. “People go to Venice because of the canals, people go to Paris because of the Eiffel Tower, well, people can come to Macedonia because Skopje has an interesting ornateness about it that not everybody, not every Macedonian might understand from a tourist perspective”, he concludes. The couple leaves advice for people in doubt of coming to Macedonia – “come and spend some time”, “you won’t be disappointed”.

Edward also incents Macedonian NGOs to reach out to more Americans since “a lot would come here to volunteer”. While they were grocery shopping, the couple even met an American couple that had been volunteering in Kosovo. “Now, they live about an hour from Skopje, in a small town, and just started a small business there with locals”, tells Stead. “We thought ‘wouldn’t it be awesome to get more Americans, more people our age to get into this, that we are traveling for a few months at a time, things like that’”, Elen wonders excitingly. “We are loving it, the dogs love it and I think we will have a nice stay and hopefully we can really do some help and do some nice work with the volunteering”, concludes Elen happily.

Rute Cardoso

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