Local families helping children from Belarus

Local families provide hope, respite for children affected by Chernobyl disaster

by Katherine Mullen

Staff Writer

Janet Stevenson moved around her Adamstown kitchen after church Sunday and helped arrange piles of cookies, bowls of coleslaw and a crock pot of hot dogs for an indoor picnic.

Amid the flurry of activity, a group of Belarusian and American children darted in and out as families chatted.

Four families from the New Hope Presbyterian Church in Frederick are hosting Belarusian children for six weeks this summer through the American Belarusian Relief Organization (ABRO).

This summer marked the first time a group of Belarusian children came to Maryland through ABRO, a nonprofit Christian relief organization with locations in America and Belarus. The organization's mission is to help Belarusian children in the areas of the country contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in 1986.

During their stay with host families, from June 13 to July 25, the Belarusian children have the opportunity to give their bodies a rest and receive medical and dental care if needed

The six children are from Mogilev, a region that was exposed to radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The Ukrainian city of Chernobyl lies about 12 miles from the southern border of Belarus. According to ABRO's Web site, the southern third of the country received the most radiation.

This summer the group is mostly healthy and busy with fun activities, checkups and dental and eye exams, said Frederick ABRO organizer Betsy Lalley. Among its planned activities, the group expects to visit Washington, D.C. and to pick berries at local farms.

Lalley started the Frederick chapter of ABRO last March and within a couple of months, organized a base of support and sponsorship at the New Hope Presbyterian Church. ABRO uses local churches to sponsor the summer host programs.

Her interest in bringing ABRO to Frederick started several years ago when her daughters. Samantha, 18, and Kristen, 15, read about the organization in a magazine. They never thought their parents would go for the idea, they said. Lalley said she was inspired.

''The pictures just gripped our heart," she said. ''We just felt led to do this. We also thought it would be a very good experience for our daughters to be able to interact with someone from another country."

The New Hope Presbyterian Church is the main sponsor and has arranged many of the medical appointments and activities for the children, Lalley said. Through fund raising, the church has raised 75 percent of the $1,500 cost per host family. American host families are responsible for providing food and any medical prescriptions and clothes. The program is of no cost to the children and their families in Belarus.

Many of the Belarusian children come from different economic and social backgrounds and find the ABRO program through their community, church or local orphanage.

For Olya Kalyniuk, 16, who is staying with the Lalley family, the opportunity to come to America came through her Sunday school. Twelve-year old Tanya Liuchkova knew she was coming to Adamstown when the orphanage she was staying in told her she had been accepted. Although both girls are learning English during their stay, the children are accompanied by an adult chaperone that coordinates the children's Belarusian and host families and often translates during doctors' visits.

Irina Suslova is the chaperone for the Frederick group and has spent six years chaperoning for ABRO. A gynecologist in Mogilev, Suslova said ABRO requires chaperones to be either teachers or doctors.

Suslova said the group of children is learning valuable lessons of love and kindness from their host families and the community.

''Some of them, they hear about this for the first time. They see so much love, so much attention," she said.

The special attention the children receive extends beyond their host families and into the community. Many doctors, dentists and optometrists have provided primary medical care for the children at no cost. After their six-week stay, the children can receive additional medical and dental care back home through ABRO.

Dr. Paul Heavner, an optometrist at Brunswick Vision, provided eye exams for four of the children.

''There was never a question if we'd help them or not. It's just what we do here," Heavner said.