Kids from Belarus visit Surry campground

Tom Joyce

At first glance, some children enjoying the swimming facilities at Beechnut Family Campground Saturday afternoon seemed typical of any kids trying to beat the 90-degree weather. But when they spoke, one could tell they were different.

The seven girls visiting the local recreational facility off Red Brush Road are here from Belarus, an Eastern European country that was part of the former Soviet Union and which suffered the brunt of the damage from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Tourists from other countries usually come to enjoy all that America has to offer. And while the children from Belarus have been experiencing their share of fun during a six-week visit to Northwest North Carolina, plenty of healing has been going on as well thanks to a unique charitable program.

The Chernobyl disaster occurred more than 20 years ago, yet its scars remain on the Belarusian people - and especially their youth. It is estimated that the nuclear explosion released 90 times as much radiation as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Lingering effects of the radiation in Belarus have compromised the immune systems of kids there, resulting in increased levels of leukemia, birth defects, thyroid diseases and other problems. That, along with poverty and other economic woes experienced by Belarus as it has tried to make its own way since splitting from the Soviet Union in 1991, has left its young people at risk.

Special Program Helps

The group visiting Beechnut Family Campground Saturday is part of a program sponsored by the American Belarusian Relief Organization (ABRO), which each summer brings children from Belarus to this country. Some are orphans, while others come from small, highly contaminated villages and have known medical problems. A portion of the kids have families, but they are so large that the parents have trouble providing for their children.

Through the program, the youths stay with host families - similar to foreign exchange students - and experience a loving, Christian home environment while also receiving needed medical care from participating professionals and facilities who donate their services to the cause.

"They all go to the dentist and eye doctor and all of that," said Tim Newsome, whose family is one of five in the area housing the seven girls, ages 11 to 15, and their chaperone. One of the girls had a tooth reconstructed, but all also are receiving something even more special that medical science can't provide.

"For some of them, this is the first love they've seen," Newsome said of the interaction with their American hosts. The families involved in the program are associated with churches in Surry, Stokes and Forsyth counties that are part of the Pilot Mountain Baptist Association.

The ABRO effort also emphasizes a need for youths who have witnessed terrible tragedies to be placed into a different atmosphere where they can have some fun during the summer. This has included such activities as bowling, skating, boating, trips to the beach and even going to the races at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem.

Some of the youths camped at Beechnut Park Friday night, and Saturday the others joined them for lunch and free swimming courtesy of Todd and Patricia Tolbert, Beechnut's owners.

On Saturday, the Newsomes and members of two of the other host families were with the girls, who were enjoying soaking up the Surry countryside surrounding the recreational facility. To them, one of the main attractions is the county's "unpolluted air," said Mike Cockerham of Mount Airy, who also is a host parent along with his wife Tammy.

Disney Channel

A Favorite

The visitors from Belarus arrived on American soil on June 14 and will return to their country on July 27.

"The children are all so excited," said their chaperone, Svetlana Naskovoi. "They've looked forward to coming to America." The chaperone explained that they live in the Mogilev region of Belarus, where the prevailing languages are Belarusian and Russian. However, Naskovoi, as well as the kids, also can speak at least some English.

By taking part in the visit to the U.S., the children learn much that will be "important for their future life," Naskovoi added. It is hoped that the attitudes and relationships they experienced through their time with the host families will be shared back in Belarus. The youths can be considered ambassadors in that regard, she said.

The Belarusians just enjoy "your way of life," Naskovoi said. One thing that has been noted among the young people is the relationship here between earning money and attaining goods, which can be hard to grasp for people in a country long part of a communistic, state-controlled system.

"They see if you want to live well, you have to work very hard," Naskovoi added, pointing out that witnessing a culture of both husbands and wives working full-time jobs has made an impression on them. At the same time, they appreciate the quality of playing hard as well as working hard, which Americans exhibit.

The playing part was on the mind of Zhanna Korsakova, 15, who likes "everything" about this country. The foreign visitor said she enjoyed going to church here, but also was looking forward to attending the events at Bowman Gray Stadium Saturday night. "I like racing," she said.

Meanwhile, Natasha Zelina, another of the girls, said her favorite things in America include French fries, Hannah Montana and the Disney Channel.

"They're just like regular little kids," said Sheila Newsome, Tim's wife, who pointed out that overall they exhibit much of the same behavior as American children, which can drive parents batty at times.

However, there are notable differences, Tim Newsome said, explaining that the young people seem to appreciate everything they receive. He said his all-time favorite example of this was giving the Belarusian children apples and seeing them eat them core and all. "We waste so much in America," Newsome said of the lesson to be learned from that example.

"They're probably more thankful than American children," Tammy Cockerham, Mike's wife, added of the Belarusians' attitude.

Families Also Benefit

At the same time the kids are benefiting from their experience, the host families are gaining as well, Tim Newsome said. "You get a sense of fulfillment of how you're helping these kids." And through their eyes, "you see a lot of what we take for granted," he said.

Along with the seven children hosted by families in this area, additional groups are being sponsored elsewhere by ABRO branches in such cities as Raleigh and Hickory. The visitation program originated in Connecticut in 1991 when 13 children and two adults from the Mogilev region were welcomed to the U.S.

Mike Cockerham said that a lot of the girls at Beechnut Family Campground on Saturday have been participating in the program since they were 7 or 8 years old.

While the Cockerhams and Newsomes have served as host families in previous years, this year is the first time for the Axel and Tonya Torres family of Germanton to be involved. They are hosting Viyaleta Kireyeva, 11. "It was scary for us because we had never done it before," Tonya Torres said. But it has turned out great, she said. "We love kids anyway. We work with kids at church."

Sheila Newsome pointed out that along with the involvement of the host families and medical and dental personnel who donate their time, the ABRO program depends on donations to help with expenses related to the Belarusians' visit. The most costly of these is the plane fare of $1,900 per person.

Due to the tight economy, organizers were "barely" able to get the children to the U.S. this year, she said. "It's going to be a big undertaking to get them over here next year." The American Belarussian Relief Organization is a non-profit charitable group registered with the Internal Revenue Service. Donations can be sent to the organization at P.O. Box 365, Zebulon, N.C., 27597; its telephone number is (919) 269-6033.

Hope For The Future

Naskovoi, the girls' chaperone, said that Belarus - a landlocked country of 9.5 million people surrounded by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia - is making slow progress in overcoming all its difficulties. But she sees economic and other improvements as a long-range proposition still some 20 years or more away.

The good news is that "life is better than 10 years ago," Naskovoi said. The service sector in Belarus is growing rapidly and providing job opportunities for its citizens, while increased automation of factories has taken the jobs of others, she said.

In comparing Northwest North Carolina to Belarus, the chaperone said that one glaring difference between the two is a lack of mountains in her home country.

And on a mid-July day in Surry County, the subject of the weather was bound to come up, with Naskovoi pointing out that "Belarus is much like Canada" in terms of its climate.

Standing under a shade tree at Beechnut Family Campground, she added, "It is not as hot."