On January 20th 1995 Chernobyl Children’s Project was launched in the UK by the Lord Mayor of Manchester. The Bishop of Manchester and Adi Roche, Director of CCP in Ireland gave moving speeches about the plight of the children of Belarus, and the City Council promised its support.
Within days two groups were launched – in Glossopdale, Derbyshire and Littleborough in Lancashire and planning began in earnest for our first groups of children to arrive from Belarus.
We took our first reconditioned ambulance to Belarus in the Spring of 1995; brought our first group of children for a holiday that Summer; and by the Autumn we were able to fill a forty foot trailer with aid and deliver this to Belarus. Our aid programme has grown dramatically over the years, and we have about 30 groups who between them invite around four hundred children each Summer for recuperative holidays.
In April 1996 we joined forces with Manchester City Council to organise a Commemorative event on the tenth Anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, beginning with a service in the Cathedral. On the Twelfth Anniversary we brought the theatre group ‘Peace Child’ from Brest to perform a deeply moving play in Westminster Central Hall. The group went on to perform for some of our groups in other parts of the country.
In 1996 we were registered as an independent charity, and in the Spring of 1997 our work in Belarus was recognised when Linda Walker was one of the first foreigners to be made a member of the Order of Franciska Skarina, one of the country’s highest awards. She was presented with the medal by the Belarussian Ambassador, and accepted it on behalf of everyone involved with the work of CCP(UK).
Every year since 1997 we have held a National Conference, inviting the Belarussian Ambassador and other Chernobyl charities as well as all our groups. There are many charities supporting children in Belarus and we have always been keen to share ideas and experiences and to co-operative whenever appropriate. Most of our conferences have been held in Leeds and we are very grateful to Leeds City Council for the free use of their wonderful Civic Hall and for all the support provided by their staff both for the conference and for our local group.
Projects in Belarus
In recent years much of our work has taken place within Belarus: supporting Children’s Hospices; running a foster care training programme which has helped to get children out of the orphanages and into local families; and organising a major programme of educational visits to the UK, supported by the Department for International Development and UNICEF. We have worked closely with Zhuravichi Boarding Home for children with disabilities, providing them with toys, wheelchairs and mobility aids, taking their children for an annual holiday within the country and encouraging the authorities to improve the children’s education and care.
In 2000 we set up a home for four young adults with physical disabilities who had grown up at Zhuravichi; two years later we established a foster family home in Rogachev for five young children we had taken from Zhuravichi; and in 2004 opened the Mayflower Centre in Gomel. This is the first twenty four hour respite care centre in Belarus and supports many families with severely disabled children, so they can continue to care for them at home. We have worked for many years with an association of such families in Rogachev and helped them, with support from the British Embassy in Minsk, to set up a Centre for their children.
Our first group of 38 children arrived at Gatwick Airport in July 1995 and came to spend a four week holiday in Glossopdale and Littleborough. Fantastic help and support was given by the local communities, and both the children and the host families had a wonderful time. These quotes from two of the girls show just how much the holiday meant to them.
By the Spring of 1996 we had set up new groups in Lancaster, Merseyside, Cardiff, South Lakes, Crewe and Evesham. We were able to invite 150 children for the summer visit, so we chartered our first plane into Manchester Airport. Most of the children were once again from village schools but we included two teenagers who were in remission from cancer. We had been nervous about taking children who had been seriously ill but everything went fine with Natasha and Anton’s visit, so in subsequent years we have always included about a hundred children from ‘Children in Trouble, the Minsk based charity which supports the families of children with cancer.
We brought groups of children at Christmas in 1996 and 97, some of them from Garadyets Special School. They stayed with groups in Derbyshire, Wales and Yorkshire and all had a wonderful time, but we were concerned about the tendency of families to go overboard on presents for the children. We have always stressed to our host families that the holiday is primarily designed to boost the health of the children, not to shower them with western goods.
In May 1997 we brought our first group of young children in remission from cancer with their mothers. Children in Trouble had told us that there were many very young children becoming ill and once they were well enough to travel they were still too young to go abroad alone. Also their mums had been through such a stressful time they were almost as much in need of a holiday as the children. All involved found it a wonderful experience and the mothers pronounced the holiday ‘A Dream Come True’.
The following May we hosted several more groups of young children with their mothers – some in remission from cancer and others with disabilities. Amongst these children was Alina, see here at age four having treatment for leukaemia, and two years later enjoying her holiday in the High Peak. Sadly Alina had a relapse and died a few years later.
By 1998 we had thirty groups around the country, nearly all of them hosting children in the Summer. Children from Uvaravichi School stayed in Lancaster and Monk Fryston; Komarin School, less than 20 miles from Chernobyl, provided children for Teifi Valley; Gloucester took children from the village school in Yurovichi; and Hoiniki School No 2 sent children to Tavistock and Totnes. Children from Mogilev travelled to Cardiff; from Gomel Regional Hospital to Glossop; and children in remission from cancer came to Aberystwyth, Llandinam, Dolgellau, Leeds, Craven and Littleborough (now West Pennine)
The Endon and Stoke group decided not only to bring a group of young children from Veletin School but to invite a group of 18 teenagers in remission from cancer, These young people all stayed together at Cicely Haughton School in the Staffordshire Moorlands and the group organised a varied and exciting programme of events for them. In recent years these 16 to 18 year olds have stayed with families for part of the visit and enjoyed the whole experience even more.
The Aberystwyth group also host teenagers and Carmarthen, a group based at Queen Elizabeth Cambria School, invite young people up to twenty years old, most of whom have never had the chance of a holiday abroad before. When children fall ill in their early teens, by the time they are well enough to travel, there are few charities willing to invite them. And for these young people the holidays provide a great psychological boost which is almost as important for their future well being as the physical improvement to their health of the fresh air and clean food.
Blantyre have hosted children who have had bone marrow transplants or have Aplastic Aneamia, who have to have a quieter holiday, and be accompanied by a specialist doctor. Totnes and Teifi Valley have found families who can take children with quite profound special needs. Buxton & Longnor have regularly hosted Diabetic Children and the groups in Teesdale, Glossop, Evesham and Crewe have concentrated on young children and their mothers.
Catterick host children from Korma School, for whom they also collect aid. Mid Essex have a long standing link with the Terekhovka Centre, from where they take about 18 children every Summer, and Moray have also hosted children from this lovely after-school centre. Solihull in recent years have taken children from Svetlagorsk Orphanage and found this quite challenging, but very rewarding.
Our first holiday at a sanatorium, or holiday camp, in Belarus took place in the Summer of 1998. We arranged for fifty children from Zhuravichi Boarding Home and fifty from Garadyets Special School who had never had the chance of a holiday before, to travel across the country to Neman, a beautiful site on the Polish border, near to Grodno. Volunteers, mostly from an organisation called Outlook helped to raise the money for the holiday and flew out to work with the children and make sure they had a great time. Carers from Zhuravichi were able to see that the children were capable of doing much more than they had ever thought possible, and the children had the most memorable experience of their lives.
The next year we invited 300 children to take part in the Sanatorium Holiday! One hundred came from Zhuravichi and the others from four special schools. We had hoped to be able to integrate the children from the schools with the Zhuravichi kids, and held meetings in advance to try to plan this. But it proved to be very difficult and the volunteers were run ragged by trying to involve too many children in all their activities, so we decided to go back to smaller numbers and stick to the more disabled children in the future.
The children are given the opportunity to paint, draw, cut and paste, make masks, have their faces painted, play ball games, have races, dip their toes in the river, go for a boat riade, visit the park or the zoo, and from time to time to have the one to one attention which is just not possible at Zhuravichi.
We have sent out many wonderful volunteers – medical students, physiotherapists, teachers, early years workers and many others who have raised their air fares and then given two weeks of hard work. The holidays have been a life changing experience not just for the children – who live off them all year round, according to one teacher – but for some of the volunteers who have changed their career plans as a result of the time they have spent with the Zhuravichi children.
We have been able to organise this holiday every summer, with the help of our biggest supporters, the medical equipment company, KeyMed. They have also donated wonderful endoscopic equipment to hospitals in Belarus; funded the salaries of many of the staff we employ there and printed for free our calendars, cards and newsletters.