How did the Children of Chernobyl Foundation come to be established? What was the driving force behind it?
Children of Chernobyl Foundation is one of the hundreds of world wide organizations dedicated to helping the victims of the world's worst environmental accident--the explosion of the Chernobyl Nuclear power plant. Because of the prevailing winds at the time, approximately 70% of the nuclear fallout landed on Belarus, heavily in the southern regions. The strip of land between Belarus and Ukraine has been deemed uninhabitable. The aftermath of this catastrophe continues to have devastating effects on the people living in Ukraine and Belarus. Contaminated soil and waterways have contributed to poor nutrition and weakened immune systems of these people, especially the children. One of the most predominant effects of the disaster is the profound increase (over 100%) of thyroid cancer, a disease rarely found amongst children elsewhere in the world.
The corrupt political regime, poor economy, and compromised state of medical and dental facilities add to feelings of depression and despair to the people living in these regions. Bringing the children out of this environment provides travel that would otherwise be impossible for them. Besides providing a healthy environment to offset potential health problems, our program offers a unique cultural exchange for both Belarusians and Americans. But the most important gift we give to these children is Hope: hope for a better future.
Our organization began in 1994, under the auspices of a local church, the First Unitarian Universalist church of San Diego. With our partner organization, Medicine and Chernobyl (located in Minsk, Belarus), a small group of children came to San Diego for a summer respite. They were accompanied by the late Olga Valmianskaya, Professor of English at the Minsk Medical School, who acted as chaperone and translator. The children stayed with volunteer host families in the San Diego area. Olga and her husband, Emanuil Valmianski, were instrumental in starting the San Diego and the Petaluma programs. Working tirelessly until all hours of the night, they worked to compile a list of the most needy, at-risk children from the town of Mozyr, Belarus, which is about 1 hour's drive from the Chernobyl plant. In conjunction with local social workers, Olga travelled to Mozyr to personally meet and select the children who would best benefit from the summer program. This involved innumerable hours of paperwork in order to obtain VISA's and approval from the minister of education, the health department, and the US Embassy.
In 2000, our organization left the Unitarian Church and became an official 501C3 non profit organization, renamed the Children of Chernobyl Foundation, San Diego. We continued to be an all-volunteer organization whose mission was to make a difference in the lives of children.
About how many children attended the summer respite in SD? Per year? What activities did the children participate in?
We brought between 15 and 30 children to San Diego each summer for 5 wk homestays. Our organization assumed100% of the costs of travel from Belarus to San Diego, which included airfare, Visa, health insurance and miscellaneous fees. Between 1994 and 2008, approximately 300-350 children and teens came over. During their visit, children visited local dentists and ophthalmologists who performed exams and treatment pro-bono. Many of them needed extensive dental work. Having 10-15 cavities filled was not unusual. Many needed glasses which were provided at no cost. Children were treated to complimentary trips to Sea World, The Zoo, Legoland, The Aquarium, and Pageant of the Masters. We hosted pool parties, barbeques, beach get-togethers, and horseback riding events.
How did the children's artwork fit in with the hosting program?
Our partner organization established a relationship with the Minsk School of Art early on. Talented young artists, aged 9-17, created and donated artwork to our program. Paintings were brought over each summer, framed, and then shown and sold during the year at various venues. Reproductions of paintings were done in the form of art cards which were also sold. Proceeds from the sales of artwork funded costs of bringing at-risk children the following summer. One artist was chosen each year as best artist of artwork submitted, and allowed an expense-paid trip to accompany the children from the Chernobyl area.
Why did the hosting program end?
In 2008, a teenage girl from a partner program in Petaluma, CA refused to return with her group. This caused the already-strained political relationship between the USA and Belarus to worsen, and eventually turned into an international debacle, in which Belarus shut down all hosting programs in 22 countries as a punitive measure. Eventually, most countries were able to forge an agreement with Belarus to resume hosting programs. Despite multiple attempts, the USA was unable to do so. Sadly, 2008 was the last year that well children were allowed to come for respite visits. There are a few programs in the USA that host sick or disabled children, that have been allowed to continue.
What has CCF been involved in since the hosting program ended?
CCF has done in-country work in Belarus (2009-2013), helping a Chernobyl resettlement orphanage for several years as well as a "Baby Home" (orphanage for under 5-year olds) near the Chernobyl zone,. Projects included supplying the orphanage with 75 bicycles, supplying the baby home with an entire storeroom of diapers (desperately needed--the government only allows one diaper per child per day), and building playground equipment at the baby home. Due to difficulties with the government of Belarus after 2013 including getting a Visa to visit the country, CCF decided to partner with a needy town in northern Ukraine near the Chernobyl area. In 2016, board members visited and brought much needed medical supplies, and continue to further this working partnership.