Profile by Karen Downey
Twenty-eight local volunteers left Athlone on Monday to head to Belarus where they will spend ten days working on the Karolina Orphanage, which houses some 140 children.
The men will install a new toilet and shower block at the orphanage on this trip. Chairman of the Athlone Chernobyl Aid Project (ACAP) Martin Reilly said the project has been in the pipeline for ten years.
"Ten years ago we brought out a container of toilets. Now they will have all new toilets, showers and changing rooms," explained Martin. "They will also be doing a job on the gymnasium."
At the moment the gym has large windows, which results in the gym being extremely warm in the summer and cold in the winter. The group will block some of these windows and install smaller PVC ones in their place.
Martin himself travelled to Belarus two weeks ago with PJ Duignan, Noel Kelly, Rory Kilduff and Gus Lennon to prepare for the main group's trip. A group of local men dry-lined the walls in preparation for the volunteers who will install the showers and toilets, plumb them and do some block work on the building also.
Martin explained that ACAP first went to the Karolina Orphanage in 2000 and since then the charity has carried out extensive work on the orphanage.
"It was horrendous," he said, explaining that at the time the toilets were in a dreadful state and there were no showers. Instead the children had to go to a shed at the back of the orphanage to be hosed down.
A priority, then, for ACAP in 2000 was to bring out a container which had been transformed into a toilet block and to install temporary showers the children could use. Over the past ten years the charity has completely revamped the accommodation block, carried out work on the school and installed a new kitchen and seating area in the canteen building. This year the volunteers have knocked an old building and built a new shower and toilet block.
Martin explained that the group two weeks ago did the first fix plumbing and poured the floors. The charity also pays a number of local workers, who helped with the building and will have spent the last two weeks plastering the walls and tiling the building so that when Monday's group arrived the building was ready for the installation of the showers.
Over the past decade volunteers have travelled to Karolina on a regular basis where they have taken out some 300 old windows, many of which were cracked and stuffed with paper, and replaced them with PVC windows; installed a new kitchen with many of the appliances coming from Athlone and surrounding areas; put in new beds in the accommodation block; dry-lined all the walls; put in new lights in the accommodation block, where previously one single light was supposed to light up an entire corridor; changed doors; installed toilets in the school and built sheds for storage.
Karolina has come a long way in those ten years and now the 140 orphans will have new showers with hot running water as above the shower block the men are building a room to house the boilers, which ill be fully insulated to protect them from the -30 degree weather experienced in the harsh winter months.
Among the group of 28 volunteers who travelled to Belarus on Monday to complete the shower block at the orphanage was a contingent in Custume Barracks in Athlone - Tony Grehan, John Feery, Martin Fallon, Mattie Grehan, Kevin Cunnane and Noel Lyons.
Last week General Officer Commanding the 4th Western Brigade Brig Gen Gerry Hegarty met with the group of soldiers, telling them:
"We're all very proud of this. It's one of the best charities we're involved in. I know you do this for yourselves, but it reflects well on the Defence Forces.
I've been briefed several times on what's going on out there. I hope everyone appreciates what you do."
Martin Reilly thanked Brig Gen Hegarty for all the help the charity has received from the barracks and informed him the shower block would be up and running when the 28 volunteers return next week.
And while the installation of the shower block will essentially bring the Karolina Orphanage up to date, the charity already has plans for work there next year, where the volunteers hope to transform one of the buildings into an apartment block for the older orphans so that they can adopt to independent living before leaving Karolina.