Features

Toxic memories

"Toxic memories" Continued...

Issue: "Faculty follies," April 29, 2006

While experts continue to hash out the details of Chernobyl's impact, some faith-based groups and nonprofit organizations are quietly working behind the scenes to bring relief to thousands of children.

The American Belarussian Relief Organization (ABRO), a North Carolina--based Christian ministry, brings children in Chernobyl-contaminated regions to the United States for six weeks each summer. Joe Strong, ABRO's executive director, says the visiting children often suffer from the effects of radiation still lurking in the soil, vegetation, and firewood to which Belarus residents are regularly exposed.

The children stay with volunteer host families from local churches around the United States and "get a chance to rejuvenate and clean out their immune system," he says: "Their color comes back, their headaches leave, sinus problems clear up, and coughs go away." Belarusian parents are often overwhelmed with the results: "They tell me, 'We sent you a sick child, and you sent us back a healthy child.'"

Many of the several hundred children ABRO brings to the United States each summer are from orphanages in rural, contaminated areas. Poverty and rampant alcoholism have driven up the number of orphans in Belarus, and Mr. Strong says many boys in orphanages wind up in jail, but visits with host families help to "show them love and how to love."

Though the children don't speak English (and host families usually don't speak Russian), strong bonds develop, and host families adopted 40 of the orphaned children from the program's start in 1991 until two years ago, when Belarus closed the door to foreign adoptions.

Adopting a Belarusian child who speaks no English was the last thing on Mike and Jennifer Stacks' minds when the couple from Charlotte, N.C., agreed to host a little boy through ABRO in the summer of 2003. After reading an announcement in their church bulletin requesting host families for ABRO, the Stacks and their two teenage sons decided to share a spare bedroom in their new home, "but we were reluctant," says Mr. Stacks. Reluctance turned into "an instant attraction" when the family picked up 9-year-old Alex from the airport.

During the visit the Stacks ended up hosting Alex's older sister Katherine as well. By the end of the six weeks, says Mr. Stacks, "We were asking ourselves, Do we want these kids to go back to a life of poverty where we'll never see them again?" Nine months and reams of adoption documents later, the Stacks welcomed Alex and Katherine into their family permanently.

On a warm, sunny afternoon, Alex nimbly climbs a tall tree in his plush, green yard, thousands of miles away from the dark, cold orphanage he recently called home. But Alex and his sister remain connected to their roots through Mr. Stacks' volunteer work raising support for Belarusian orphanages. Orphanages like the one in which Alex lived don't receive government assistance in providing children with clothing, nonprescription medicine, or school supplies. Mr. Stacks' recently formed Belarusian Orphans Relief Foundation provides direct assistance for those needs, as well as building improvements and other needed upgrades.

While researchers continue to debate the long-term effects of the Chernobyl disaster, Mr. Strong says ABRO will continue to bring children to the United States. "Chernobyl is a living experiment, and we don't really know all the effects," he says. "But one thing we do know is that when we bring a child here, it makes a difference."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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