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Chernobyl Kids

April 26, 1986--for most, this is not exactly a day that lives in infamy. But the people of Belarus, especially the children, must still deal with the effects of that day's disastrous nuclear reactor explosion every day.

By participating in a program called Children of Chernobyl some Duke employees are doing their part to alleviate the pain of the past.

"In reality, this has had a serious effect on the area," said Rob Little, senior manager of the Office of Information Technology.

Little and his wife and three kids, ages 10, eight, and five, hosted eight-year-old Anya Brel for six weeks this past summer.

"It really warms your heart to see the people involved in this program help out," he said.

The primary focus of the program is to provide health care fore the children, but it also aims to introduce them to a loving, positive lifestyle, Little said.

The young girl Little hosted spoke no English and arrived with her worldly possessions in a shopping bag.

"Many host families ended up buying their child a suitcase and filling it with clothes and other needs before their trip home," Little said.

The program, officially established in October 1998, pays for costs such as airfare, transportation, visas, medical insurance, and interpreters. The host family covers the rest of the expenses.

Information about the program is dispensed to various churches, but Andrew Pinter, a program coordinator, explained that many people find out about it through word of mouth.

"With this type of program where you have children for five to six weeks, the good that you do is very evident.... That tends to sparkconversations."

Local physicians provide free health care. The children receive general pediatric exams, vision care, and dental care.

"Basically we become their medical home while they're here in the United States," said Dr. Sharon Foster of Raleigh Pediatrics. "They come in pale and leave tan and healthy."

Dr. Douglas Holmes, an ear, nose and throat specialist who donates his services, recalled walking into church and seeing one of his former Belorussian patients. She immediately gave him a large smile.

"It made every effort that I've done really count," he said. "You know you are making a difference in the world."

For every four to six weeks that the children spend away from the radioactivity of their homes, Dr. Foster said, they gain two to three years of life. In addition to the physical care they receive, the children have an opportunity to heal emotionally.

"The kids we get are usually gracious," Pinter said."They are thankful for our help and go away with a better understanding that there are people out there who care."

But the program does not only benefit the children; often families walk away with unparalleled, positive experiences."Most families involved actually have gotten more out of the program [than the kids do]," Pinter said. "Our families come away understanding just how lucky we are."

Because the children generally speak no English, the families are given a Russian phrase book. In addition, there are two translators, who can be reached by beeper or cell phone in case of emergency.

But on the whole they communicate with simple hand motions and sign language. "The kids just didn't seem to care and within ten minutes were playing like usual," Little said.

"They spoke in a universal kid language and nothing else seemed to matter."


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