Families host Belarussians

Donations from local church members help fund program

By Emily Zych

News-Post Staff

FREDERICK -- "It's hard to figure out pizza toppings in another language," said Betsy Lalley, laughing heartily as she recalled a restaurant experience.

"We finally had the wait-staff bring out a plate of toppings so the kids could point and say, 'Da, Da, Nyet, Nyet.'"

The Lalley family has become very creative in communicating with their temporary daughter, Volha "Olya" Kalyniuk, a 16-year-old from Belarus.

"We've learned to play charades, draw pictures -- and the Russian-English dictionary has been a godsend," Ms. Lalley said.

Ms. Lalley knew she was embarking on a journey when she began coordinating with the American Belarussian Relief Organization (ABRO) for a group of children from Belarus to spend six weeks experiencing America in the Frederick area. Through donations from members of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Frederick, six families were able to host the children who range from 7 to 16 years old. Most of the visitors do not speak any English.

Belarus, a small country in the former Soviet Union, received 70 percent of the radiation damage from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant incident, according to ABRO's Web site. The effects of the disaster are manifested in the weak immune systems of many Belarussian children, who are afflicted with thyroid disease, thyroid cancer, leukemia, birth defects and vitamin deficiencies.

"The organizers told me six weeks in the U.S. will add a year onto these kids' lives," said Ms. Lalley.

The children in the New Hope group are all relatively healthy, although one girl has a cleft palate and another has eye problems.

"We're just making sure there's nothing there that's hidden," said Ms. Lalley.

The children are receiving physicals, dental care and eye exams from practitioners in the community, all at no cost.

"They are all so generous and kind. It astounds me," said Ms. Lalley. The doctors are checking for a condition known as Chernobyl's heart, in which the heart develops a hole.

Donations from members of New Hope, as well as money and clothing from other churches, made this experience possible.

"We would get checks as the word got out," Ms. Lalley said.

No luggage, just gifts

When they first arrived, the children were exhausted from 20 hours spent traveling by plane, bus and car.

"They were all bleary-eyed; a few seemed nervous, most were excited, and all were appreciative and very, very happy to be here," Ms. Lalley said. "One child just smiles from ear to ear."

The children don't bring much with them. Most have no personal belongings, just the clothing on their backs. However, each toted a present for the host family.

"I can't even find the words to describe that generosity," Ms. Lalley said.

One of the first tasks was to acquire clothing for the children. The group held a clothing swap through churches and other organizations. After tha Boscovt, it was time to go shopping.

"They were so wide-eyed going shopping. Wal-Mart and Target are like Disney World for the kids," Ms. Lalley said.

She said many of the host families now realize how privileged they are to live in the United States.

"Just walking around our supermarkets or seeing our medical systems; we take it for granted," Ms. Lalley said.

Ms. Lalley works as an administrative assistant. She and her husband, Craig, have two daughters: Kristen, 15, and Samantha, 13. Ms. Lalley said she is tired at the end of each day, but hosting Olya seems to have energized her spirit.

"So far, the experience has been incredible. There's been times when it's been hard, but it's just been wonderful," Ms. Lalley said.

She said she has realized that all children have the same basic needs, no matter what their country of origin.

The visiting children are accompanied by an interpreter, Irina Suslava, who works as an obstetrician and gynecologist in Belarus. Ms. Suslava also serves as a legal guardian and is present at all doctor and dentist visits.

"We call her up to interpret something over the phone if we get stuck," Ms. Lalley said.

Cultural exchange

The Jernigans of Walkersville are another family in the New Hope group. They are hosting a 10-year-old boy named Pavel Kindruk, who goes by the name Pasha.

"He likes the TV," Ms. Jernigan said. "Sometimes it's hard to turn it off and have him play outside."

The idea to host a child was first presented to the Jernigans one Sunday morning at New Hope.

"We had no family vacation planned this year, so it was an opportunity to learn about a different culture," Ms. Jernigan said.

The four Jernigan children -- Wesley, 14, Emily, 11, Seth, 8, and Rachel, 5, are homeschooled.

"We spent the springtime learning about the culture of Belarus," Ms. Jernigan said.

According to Ms. Jernigan, Pasha has adjusted well to life in America.

"He's been very easy and very laid back. He just seems to go with the flow," she said.

One aspect of American life that Pasha has not yet warmed up to is the food.

"He's not ready to come out of his comfort zone. Last night, we had Chinese food and he had this look like, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" Ms. Jernigan said.

Pasha has tasted other aspects of life in the U.S. -- he had his first trip to Toys "R" Us, as well as an American library.

"The experience has been really good. You just become so comfortable in your lifestyle; it's good to get out of your box. It's good to be challenged," Ms. Jernigan said.

"Today I realized, he's just like any other boy," she said. "He gets in his moods, sometimes he doesn't want to listen, sometimes he does -- we are all the same.