‘Chernobyl visit was a catalyst for profound change in my life'
By Leanne Quinn, Westmeath Rose
“Have a good time!... Well, you know what I mean…”. Just as there were no words for well-wishers to fully prepare someone for their journey with Adi Roche’s Chernobyl Children International (CCI), so too are there no words to express how profound an impact this entire experience had on the 2018 Roses and Rose Escorts who travelled to Belarus on Saturday February 16.
Yet, having spoken to those who had gone before us and acknowledging that this was arguably the biggest opportunity to affect real change in our year as a Rose or Rose Escort, whether we would go was never in doubt.
On April 26, 1986, Chernobyl was the scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster when an explosion at a newly-built nuclear power plant unleashed 200 times more radioactivity than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs and affected the lives of seven million people.
Since, almost 6,000 children are born every year in the Ukraine with congenital heart defects such as ‘Chernobyl Heart’.
The CCI medical care programme in children’s institutions has transformed the approach to the care of children in Belarus, significantly improving their quality of life and providing medical care for the children affected, to this day, by the aftermath of the explosion.
Our journey began with an early start, having wrestled with overweight suitcases in Dublin Airport, eventually catching a connecting flight in Amsterdam.
After long delays and a tiresome bus journey from Minsk airport, we arrived at Vesnova Children’s Orphanage late Saturday night.
Apprehension filled the air as we hauled our cases from the bus and into the midnight darkness, through the blue, green and yellow manned gates; little did we know what heartache, elation, hope, despair, laughter and tears lay before us in the days ahead.
The orphanage is home to approximately 170 children from as young as five years of age; the children are unique in their disabilities and deformities and in their personalities.
Admittedly, I was pleasantly surprised at the vibrancy and the cleanliness of the infrastructure; testament to the involvement and the investment of CCI in the orphanage.
Though while these living conditions are at least sanitary, and the care given basic at best (in that the children are fed, washed and clothed), it became abundantly clear that these children were in desperate need of love and affection; something that no amount of colourful wallpaper nor clean clothes could hope to provide.
On Sunday morning, we were split into two groups and made our way to the different units to help with our first feed.
Despite the cleanliness of the facility, there was a lingering smell throughout the orphanage and with tea tree oil soaked into our neck scarves, we covered our mouths and noses for a moment, took one deep breath and entered Unit 2.
One of my clearest memories of the entire trip is of Unit 2 that Sunday morning. Some children were screaming and shouting, others remained silent, rocking themselves in corners of the room, some rolled rhythmically on the padded floor and others were completely still in their chairs, arms restrained, waiting to be fed.
I remember looking into the bowl of breakfast; rice, eggs, what looked like milk and maybe oats and thinking: ‘I can’t do this’.
And I’m not quite sure what kicked in, instinct maybe, but just as everyone else in the room had done, I grabbed a bowl, a spoon and a towel and went to feed a little blind girl rocking herself in the farthest corner of the room. There were tears streaming down my face and down the faces of each Rose and Rose Escort in the room that day and on the days to come – we knew this would be one of the hardest things we would ever do.
Over the next three days, we filled our time by visiting the different children in their units, helping with breakfast, lunch and dinner feeds, bathed and clothed the children, visited the supervised, independent living quarters for young adults in the orphanage and witnessed the success of CCI sponsored community living projects in the nearest village, Glusk.
We celebrated birthdays and special achievements, sang songs and played music, listened intently to Adi Roche speak for hours of her history with Vesnova and her hopes for the future. We attended the children’s life skills classes where they crafted the most beautiful art from wood, clay, beading and wool.
We ventured to the local graveyard, where children who didn’t make it had their graves marked with black iron crosses and numbers written in Tippex. We listened to their stories and were moved to tears each time the impact of our presence was acknowledged.
Little did they know, we felt the same way just being there with them. We laughed hysterically, cried uncontrollably, comforted and cared for everyone in our path, but above all, we learned what a hug should really feel like. We learned to re-evaluate everything that we have when others are content with so little. We learned to appreciate life.
On a personal note, this experience has been the catalyst for profound changes in my own life and I can honestly say that I owe the children of Vesnova far more than I could have ever hoped to give them in return and for that, I will be forever grateful to them. No matter where life may take any one of us, never forget how important it is to have courage and be kind.
I would like to sincerely thank all of those who helped with our fundraising initiatives in recent months, including the Table Quiz for Chernobyl at Mary Lynch’s in late January, and those who sponsored prizes; our fitness challenge at Studio One Fitness, Limerick; our GoFundMe campaign; sponsorship cards; Coralstown National School for hosting a no-uniform day; STATS LLC for their generosity and support and the many donations from friends, family, neighbours and colleagues. Also, a special thank you to Boots Mullingar, Fagan Office Supplies Mullingar and Haven Pharmacy Gildea’s, Kinnegad for sponsoring medical supplies and children’s toys, which I had the honour of presenting to the children of Vesnova along with those collected by my fellow Roses and Rose Escorts. To see how happy a toothbrush made one of these special children was a truly humbling experience and I am delighted to say that as a group, we raised almost €50,000 for this incredible charity.