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Chernobyl kids receive health care through Carolina church

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Bob Vernon

Host families and children from Belarus enjoy a picnic at Kerr Lake in North Carolina.
Aug. 24, 2006

By Bob Vernon*

CARY, N.C. (UMNS) –– This year marks the 20th anniversary of an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in what was then the Soviet Union.

Radioactive fallout equivalent to 150 Hiroshima atomic bomb blasts spewed for 10 days over 77,000 square miles.

Most of the damage caused by the April 26, 1986, explosion was felt — and continues to be experienced — by the 10 million residents of the Republic of Belarus, which received 70 percent of the Chernobyl radiation.

Some of the land around Chernobyl will never be habitable again. Farther away from ground zero, the effects of the radiation will be felt for generations. It is the children of these areas that a group of Americans is reaching out to help.

The American Belarussian Relief Organization was created in 1991 for the sole purpose of helping children in the contaminated areas. White Plains United Methodist Church of Cary, N.C., was one of the first churches to get involved in the program. Each summer for a decade, it has brought children from Belarus to North Carolina.

Money for the plane tickets and visas is raised by church members who operate a food concession at the annual fall North Carolina State Fair. Other expenses are covered by special offerings. Church members who are in the medical profession donate their services to the children.

Judi Brettschneider, ABRO project coordinator for the White Plains church, has made many trips to Belarus. The six children who are guests of the church this year are all orphans. As Brettschneider describes the conditions in the village where the orphanage is located, she sounds as if she might be talking about a community from another century.

She says people in the area do not have indoor plumbing, and they line up at a central pump to get their daily water supply. The quality of medical care is no better than their water system, says Brettschneider.

“I appreciate what I have a lot more than I did,” Brettschneider says. “I understand that life is not easy for everybody. My life is easy. Even when I have a bad day, my life is easy.”

Medical care

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Bob Vernon

Belarusian children and their hosts take a break from fun on the water.

The children, ranging in age from 8 to 15, stay with church families for six weeks. The days are filled with picnics and fun on area lakes along with trips to seemingly magical supermarkets and shopping centers.

Visits to American doctors are the most significant part of their summer experiences. While the most common ailments in the highly contaminated villages of Belarus are leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease, most of the children have suppressed immune systems that make them vulnerable to other medical problems as well.

One of the children brought here for several summers by the White Plains church has tuberculosis. Each year, she has been treated by North Carolina doctors and medicine has been sent home with her. This summer she shows no signs of the disease.

Another child is being treated by Dr. Steven Boyce, an ears, nose and throat specialist, who is a church member. He says the girl has a condition that needs surgery or she will soon lose hearing in one ear.

Boyce is looking for a way to make sure the child gets the necessary operation. He says her best option would be to return later in the year for the procedure.

A transforming experience

The interchange between the Americans and the children of Belarus is not a one-way street. Church member Patti Crane says she has learned much from 14-year-old Vika, the teenager staying with the Crane family. “There are a lot of things that make her happy, and material things aren’t necessarily the things that make her happy.”

While many of the host families would like to adopt the orphans, the Belarus government will not allow it. “I do worry and am concerned about what happens to (Vika) while she is back in the orphanage,” Crane says.

“ Our church and our church members are transformed,” says the Rev. Kelly Lyn Logue associate pastor of the White Plains church, “because we don’t write a check to tend to these kids, we actually live out our commitment to them. We all learn new ways of communicating and find that offering home and shelter, friendship and love translates the same in any language.”

The church is already making plans to expand the program and to sponsor additional children from Belarus next summer.

More information is available at online.

*Vernon is a freelance producer in Cary, N.C.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or

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