By Sinéad Goldsboro
A recent meeting with a local charity, Thurles and District Friends of the Children of Chernobyl, really opened my eyes to what the meaning of friendship, loyalty, commitment and kindness are really about. This local charity is tireless in their commitment and support to the children and their families in Belarus since it’s foundation in 1993.
Founder members Margaret Gleeson, Moyne, is now National President and Moira Morrissey, Ballycahill, is National Treasurer. The National organisation consists of 9 groups around the country, from Killarney to Sligo, committed to the same idea, who call themselves the Friends of the Children of Chernobyl. This group is separate from the Adi Roche charity.
They focus on the people in the Brest region of Belarus which has been directly affected by the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl 25 years ago. They fundraise locally to raise money for medical supplies and equipment, food for some families and also to bring up to 24 different children each year to Tipperary for the month of July, which includes a weekend by the beach.
Several pieces of medical equipment have been purchased by the group for a hospital in the town of Pinsk. In 2008 when the group became aware of children having their tonsils removed without an anaesthetic, a major fundraising dance was held in the Anner Hotel organised by an enthusiastic group of Thurles ladies led by Catherine McCormack. This event resulted in the hospital acquiring an anaesthetic machine.
When the children come to Ireland they are placed with host families in Thurles, Moyne, Littleton, Ballingarry, Killenaule, Gortnahoe-Glengoole, Ballycahill, Upperchurch and surrounding areas. The process of organising this trip for them starts in November when the volunteers visit Belarus and meet with local interpreters and teachers to decide which children will come to Ireland the following July.
Child First Officer Mary Murphy told me that it is a long process with a huge amount of paper work involved. Incoming National Chairperson Mary Finnegan said that over the years the number of children with thyroid problems has reduced. The cost of bringing a child is huge and the charity is now considering the idea of spending more money on the ground in Belarus improving homes and communities there while still bringing a small number of children to Ireland that need to visit for health reasons.
Secretary, Ann Crawford, who has learned to speak Russian since her involvement with the charity, has picked up on things the children say when they come on holiday such as one little girl who was very excited about seeing swings on her trip to Ireland while another boy had heard from a previous visitor of our huge mountains. Ann also helped out Treasurer Carmel Troy in shedding light on the cause of high jinks between some of the children that were visiting.
PRO, Martin Taylor, told me that the area they come from is poor, like Ireland 50 or 60 years ago.
Some children have no shoes and threadbare clothes. Their economy had been improving with plenty of building work in the nearby town of Pinsk but now that work has ended and people have had to go to Moscow for work. There are huge social problems in the area where the charity works with the main problem being alcohol abuse which results in further poverty. Chairman, Donald Kennedy along with teachers from the schools see which families are in dire straits and the charity will buy them food, such as pasta, sugar or oil for cooking and sometimes even wood for their fire. They will also assist the alcoholic parent in receiving treatment to help them overcome addiction. Many of them turn to cheap drink for comfort as a result of health problems, both physical and mental, and poverty.
The families are very grateful as when the volunteers attend meetings in the schools during their twice yearly visits they are overwhelmed by the gratitude of the people of Belarus for the help they have received.
The Thurles and District branch of the Friends of the Children of Chernobyl is involved with 7-9 schools in the Pinsk area, 2 half-way houses (homes that are a step between possibly leaving the family unit before having to go to an orphanage) and have recently completed a community centre for invalids and the elderly.
They have shower and proper toilet facilities available for their use. There is also a kitchen, a meeting room and a computer room. On these visits the volunteers get the opportunity to meet up with children from previous trips and see how they and their families are getting on. The children, some of whom are now young adults, look forward to the visits from the volunteers. Not only do they bring much needed medical supplies but they also bring hope and a caring smile. Some research carried out by an American geophysical union claim that Caesium 137 (radioactive component which was thought to have a life of 30 years now could be there for 150 years.
Through their work with the organisation on the ground in Belarus the volunteers have seen many changes. The quality of life is poor but families have learned how to help each other for the betterment of their children.
The Friends of the Children of Chernobyl understand that we are all experiencing difficult times but would ask for continued support and to keep donating on a local level. That way we can hear about the work they are doing and how our money is being spent.
Every cent that is raised by the charity goes to Belarus as any volunteer that travels to the area does so at their own expense. There will be a church gate collection in Killenaule on June 11th and 12th and in Ballingarry 25th and 26th June. You can contact the charity by phone on if you are interested in becoming a volunteer, a host family, to make a donation or become a sponsor: National Chairperson, Mary Finnegan 052-9154018; Thurles Group, Donald 052-9156482; Ann 0504-44682; Martin 0504-24371 and Mary Murphy 052-9154345. Bank of Ireland, Thurles: Sort Code 90-44-64; Account No. 40890845.