Abilene church's Belarussian youth outreach in jeopardy

By Brian Righi

The eastern European country of Belarus has halted humanitarian youth trips to the United States, which could affect an outreach program at the Beltway Park Baptist Church in Abilene.

The program was halted after a Belarussian teenager visiting a family in Petaluma, Calif., refused to return home, according to the Press Democrat newspaper in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Tanya Kazyra, a 16-year-old from Borisov, Belarus, has decided she wants to stay with her host family in California rather than return to her grandmother in Eastern Europe. Tanya has spent the past nine summers with her host family, who has recently come under criticism for encouraging the teenager to stay.

The program is designed to offer children a temporary escape from the fallout of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

The decision by the government of Belarus has halted such programs.

An estimated 1,400 children -- many of whom come from dysfunctional families or orphanages -- visit U.S. homes nationwide through various organizations.

The environmental disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 led to severe radioactive contamination of the surrounding countryside and dramatically increased cases of leukemia, cancer, birth defects and vitamin deficiencies in children whose immune systems are particularly vulnerable.

For the past three years the Beltway Park Baptist Church has hosted as many as 12 youngsters from Belarus for six-week periods starting in June. The program is sponsored through the nonprofit American Belarusian Relief Organization, which is not associated with the Children of Chernobyl Project, which has been the subject of the recent controversy.

Jeannette McQueen, wife of Beltway Park Baptist Church senior pastor David McQueen, said that "unless the issue is resolved and the young girl returned to her country, there won't be a program next year.

"It's unfair that one child should jeopardize the welfare of so many others," she said.

Unlike the host parents of other organizations, the participating members of Beltway Park Baptist Church sign contracts promising to return the Belarussian children after the six-week program has ended or face legal ramifications.

"It's hard to look into the face of a child and tell them that they have to go back," McQueen said.



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