August 17, 2005

Belarussian Experience Family Reflects On One Girl's Visit

By Michelle Pirraglia

FUN IN THE SUN-Pictured from left to right, Sasha Borikova, a chaperone from Belarus, Catie Ryan and Nastassia Ruliakova enjoy a July day on the waters at the Moriches Bay Outlet.

"We really miss her," said 12-year-old Catie Ryan about her new friend, Nastassia Ruliakova, who recently went back to her home country of Belarus after spending six weeks visiting Long Island.

Thanks to Catie's fundraising efforts over the winter months, as well as donations from the local community, the Ryan family was able to bring Nastassia to their Mastic Beach home through the American Belarussian Relief Organization. According to the ABRO, Belarus, which is located near Russia, was severely affected by the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident in 1986, receiving "approximately 70% of the radiation damage." With the country also suffering from poverty and other political problems, the ABRO, a Christian organization, provides children with the opportunity to visit the United States to not only step out of their impoverished situation for a time, but to also get some of their medical needs met.

"We took her to the eye doctor and the dentist, and she also had a physical," said Margaret Ryan, Catie's mother, adding that blood tests were also done. One of the major concerns for Belarussians is the possibility of thyroid cancer, leukemia and vitamin deficiencies, caused by the excessive amounts of radiation present in the country, according to the ABRO. However, Margaret noted that Nastassia's "health is pretty good - she just needs fillings [in her teeth]."

Catie, who first learned of the ABRO program through a magazine, said that having Nastassia live with her family was an eye-opening experience. "She has a really hard life," Catie said about Nastassia's situation in Belarus. "I was so surprised she had gone through all this stuff, and she's only 12 years old."

Coming from the airport in late June, Nastassia's luggage consisted of one small plastic bag which contained all of her belongings. Noting that the first two weeks were the most difficult in terms of adjusting, Margaret said, "I told them [her 10-year-old son James and Catie] that they are just like you, they just have different circumstances."

She added that the hardest part early on was the language barrier, but the family was surprised to find so many friends and neighbors who spoke Russian. "It was hard for her because she had no one to talk to, but I met so many people that helped us," Margaret explained. "I never realized there were so many people [locally] who speak Russian."

Local residents also donated clothing, as well as certain needed services, such as dental and medical care, during Nastassia's stay, according to Jim Ryan, Catie's father, who said he is very proud of his daughter. "I can't speak highly enough about her efforts and motives," he noted. "She took on a project I thought was very worthwhile."

Taking her on trips to places such as Splish Splash and Adventureland, the Ryans said they were amazed as they watched Nastassia come out of her shell and just be a normal child having fun. "The transformation was pretty dramatic," Jim commented. "In the beginning she was painfully shy, but by the end she gave everyone a big hug. She's the sweetest little kid." Jim also was able to take Nastassia out on his boat. "We had a great time," he said.

As for what Nastassia's favorite excursion was, Catie said, "I think it was the trip to the city. They have nothing like New York City in Belarus." Catie also introduced Nastassia to American cinema. "Her favorite movies were 'Shrek,' 'Bald Hill' and 'Harry Potter,'" she noted, adding that the whole experience "was fun."

When Nastassia left for home on August 4, "We were just crying, but she [Nastassia] wasn't crying, she's very tough." Margaret noted that she was happy she could help a child in need, adding that, thanks to the many donations, Nastassia "came with a plastic bag and went back with three suit cases."

While it will be nearly impossible to keep in touch with Nastassia, due to the area she lives in and the fact that she cannot read or write, Catie added that she hopes to bring her back to the US next year. "I'm probably going to call Waldbaum's pretty soon to see if I can get out there again and raise some money," she said, referring to her previous fundraising efforts of selling brownies in front of the Shirley supermarket.

"She had a great time," Maggie said of Nastassia's stay. "I think it was a very positive experience for my family. I would love to have her back next year."

As for anyone who may be interested in bringing a Belarussian child into their home for the summer months, Catie offers the following advice: "You shouldn't expect someone just like you. [You] shouldn't do it to try to make a friend, but just to help someone."

For more information on the ABRO or how to participate in this exchange program visit