Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Laurel couple opens home and hearts to boy from Belarus

BY Belinda Sheely Outlook Staff

On April 25 and 26, 1986, the world's worst nuclear power accident occurred at Chernobyl in the former USSR (now Ukraine). The Chernobyl nuclear power plant had four reactors. While testing reactor number four, numerous safety procedures were disregarded. At 1:23 am. the chain reaction in the reactor went out of control, creating explosions and a fireball which blew off the reactor's heavy steel and concrete lid.

An estimated 70 percent of the radioactive fallout from this explosion fell on Belarus, a nation just north of Ukraine. The radiation affected about one-fifth of the Belarus territory and more than two million of its people. This accident has had devastating effects on the environment, economy and people of Belarus. It continues to have long term effects on those who live in areas where long-life radioisotopes have settled in the soil.

Last summer, Vince and Debbie Ricci, of Laurel, made the decision to open their home to an 8-year-old boy from Belarus through the Global Family Alliance ministry. This Christian ministry connects Belarus' children who have mild health problems with host families in the U.S. The children live with their host families for six weeks during the summer. Host families are responsible for getting the children to medical, dental and vision appointments. "The kids basically get a six-week health respite," Vince Ricci said. "If they can get their immune systems stronger, their bodies can handle the radiation better."

"Sasha became part of our family almost immediately," Debbie Ricci noted. After a two-day trip from his homeland, Alexander Vertashionok or "Sasha" as he was called by the Riccis, settled right in with their family when he came to the Laurel/Billings area with nine other children from Belarus.

The group also had an interpreter who navigated between homes to help build communication between the children and their host families. "When the interpreter wasn't available we did a lot of communicating by pointing and nodding," Debbie said. "You'd be amazed at how well we understood each other."

Sasha suffers from chronic upper respiratory infections, thorax deformation and problems with his teeth and gums. The Riccis took him to local doctors Bob Ulrich, Mike Wheeler, and Ron Benner where he received quality care. He also visited thyroid specialist Dr. David Johnson in Billings. The incidence of thyroid cancer among children under age 15 in Belarus is extremely high.

Vince and Sasha bonded with each other right away. They played together romping around the house and called each other "Babushka." Vince later learned that Babushka means "grandma." Vince was also impressed with the boy's fearlessness. "There was nothing that kid wouldn't do," he said.

Sasha joined the Laurel Volunteer Firemen on the 4th of July and helped them barbecue hot dogs and hamburgers. The Riccis got to take Sasha on his first water slide. They fed him his first bowl of cereal, and gave him his first ride on a lawn mower. He got to go fishing and camping with them. He loved to go bike riding. "It was just amazing to be part of so many firsts for this boy," Debbie said.

The poverty level in Belarus is very high. Many of the children living there come from a home with an average income of around $30 per month. In Sasha's case, his parents were unemployed when he came to the U.S. His family lives in a one room house with an outhouse in the back yard. The Riccis were very moved by how little Sasha had with him when he arrived. "When he got off the plane, all he had was what he was wearing -- his shirt, pants, underwear, socks, shoes and a hat, and he carried a plastic bag with a gift for Debbie and I," Vince said.

Sasha continues to call the Riccis once a month. They have invited him to return this summer for another health respite, but they have yet to hear whether his parents have okayed the trip.

Sasha's impact on the Riccis went beyond falling in love with this little boy. The Riccis have now become the state directors for the Global Family Alliance, which has its roots in the state of Washington, and is in its fourth year in Montana.

The Riccis encourage people with a heart for helping these children to contact them. Eight children have already been spoken for, and they hope to place at least 12 more. The cost of hosting a child is around $1,200, which includes round-trip airfare from Belarus to Billings and insurance. These and other costs, such as clothing, recreation, and gifts for the child's family in Belarus, are primarily covered by the host families and individual donors.

Financial contributions to the program are very helpful and there are many ways to sponsor a child or the interpreter by paying for expenses normally covered by a host family.