Belarus respite program needlessly ruined


It's important for readers to know the reasons behind the reaction of the Chernobyl Children's Project board and those who support them, as there is much emotion and anger swirling around Tanya Kazyra's decision not to return to Belarus. As a past president and former board member of CCP (, I understand the delicate workings of the organization and the passions that surround this issue.

Regrettably, the Chernobyl Children's Project, founded nearly 18 years ago by two caring political activists, long-time Petalumans Connie and Cliff McClain, will more than likely end due to what appears to be an emotional and impetuous decision made by a 16-year-old girl and her host family. I know Tanya and the Zapatas. Tanya is a willful, spirited girl and the Zapatas are a loving, caring family. They love her as one of their own, as many host families love their visiting children, and as our family came to love the two girls we hosted over nine years. But their love for her has blinded them to the international consequences of their actions. The last-minute call made Tuesday morning, Aug. 5, just hours before 25 children and two interpreters were to leave for Minsk, totally blindsided the current president and CCP organization. They weren't given the heads-up in advance and didn't see this coming.

There are other ways the Zapatas could have gone about this. They had nine years to prepare, and when Tanya and the other 24 kids arrived in June with the clear understanding that everyone was returning on Aug. 5, the Zapatas could have begun legal, fair and above-board proceedings right away to find out how she could stay longer. They could have notified the board so that they were prepared. To say nothing until three hours before the flight departure when everyone else was at the airport ready to return to Belarus, was unfair, embarrassing for the organization and created an international event when there didn't need to be one.

It was upsetting for the U.S. families who were ready to send their young visitors back home as well as the Belarusian families waiting to receive their children. Other U.S. families have arranged guardianship and have found ways for their visiting children from Chernobyl to return for visits outside of the designated six weeks. They've gone through legal and proper channels to help the children return and stay in America. To know that the entire U.S. program could end because of this impulsive action taken in the wee hours of Aug. 5 in Petaluma, where the program was born, is heartbreaking for those of us who love CCP and our founders, the McClains.

The letter titled "Supporting Tanya" in the Aug. 14 Argus-Courier states, "She is in a unique situation, unlike the other members of the program due to her family situation." The writer of that letter is misinformed. Tanya's situation in Belarus is not unique. While none of us want any of the children to return to bad home conditions, the reality is that many of them do. But since the beginning of the program in 1991, that has not stopped children from coming to America and returning home six weeks later. Of course everyone wants what's best for Tanya, including me. But to cave in to the desire of one child while sacrificing thousands of others waiting for their chance at six weeks in America is a devastating blow to all who care about the children and the survival of CCP.

The Zapatas' lawyer states that the Belarusian government is overreacting. I find Mr. Kerosky's arrogance astounding. Frankly, the Zapatas' actions are a breach of the agreement made between them and CCP. They have always known the rules and for eight previous summers they obeyed them - the kids arrive on a day in June, and six weeks later they return. They could have worked to have Tanya stay longer or return at another time, outside of CCP's six- week program, and let the board know they were taking steps to do so. Others have done it fairly and with full disclosure; why not they? I wish they had handled it differently, but since they didn't, then sadly, I think this is the end. It's tragic that Tanya and the Zapatas did not think beyond their own desires, resulting in this embarrassing international incident and long-term consequences.

(Petaluma resident Julie Wilder-Sherman is a past president and former board member of the Chernobyl Child-ren's Project. She was a host parent for nine years.)



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