Friends of Chernobyl call it a day

By Maria Pepper

FLASHBACK TO 2013: Visiting children from Chernobyl visit Playzone with members of Wexford Friends of Chernobyl.
FLASHBACK TO 2013: Visiting children from Chernobyl visit Playzone with members of Wexford Friends of Chernobyl.

The Wexford Friends of Chernobyl charity has disbanded after nearly 30 years in operation during which over 1,000 children from the nuclear-contaminated region of Belarus were brought here on health-boosting holidays paid for by community fundraising.

'It's sad that it had to end but it was getting harder and harder to raise money and to find host families', said Phil Breen who was involved in the group for almost 25 years, becoming chairperson 10 years ago.

On Monday, Phil handed over the organisation's remaining funds of €1,500 to the counselling service 'It's Good to Talk' having previously donated €1,500 to the Rainbow autism unit in Scoil Mhuire.

'The money was raised locally and we thought it would be nice to give it back to Wexford,' she said.

The registered charity was legally dissolved in 2016 with the last group of children from Mozyr in Belarus having holidayed in Wexford in the summer of 2015. Final accounts were filed and a notice of dissolution placed in a national newspaper.

Wexford was one of the first places to take in Belarusian children a year after the world's worst nuclear accident at the Chernobyl plant in 1986. In the beginning, up to 70 children would arrive every summer to stay in the homes of Wexford people, their flights and expenses paid from local funds at an annual cost of about €30,000 on top of generous sponsorship by businesses.

'In the last six or seven years, the number dwindled down to about 25 or 30 and the last year we had 19', said Phil who was assisted by vice-chairperson Muriel Lynch and secretary Anne Keeling.

'It was getting harder to find host families and when garda vetting came in six years ago, some people didn't want to give personal details. But with all the vetting that went on we never had to refuse anyone,' said Phil, adding that previous to this, committee members would call to prospective host homes to carry out their own assessments.

It was becoming increasingly difficult to continue raising enough money to cover the travel, visa and insurance costs of the children and their accompanying interpreters.

'Everything was paid for out of our fund. It was getting more that people wanted to raise money for the community, for Wexford. We were finding it more and more difficult to raise the amount of money we needed each year. We couldn't see any light at the end of the tunnel,' said Phil.

'It was costing in the region of £20,000 to bring in 25 children. To hire a bus from Dublin to Wexford and back again for a day trip would cost €1,000, Insurance was very high.'

'There are a lot more groups out there trying to fundraise now and some people prefer to give to local causes. We used to do a collection on the Main Street at Christmas which would bring in between €3,000 and €4,000 but the last time we did it we got €800. Years ago, we had companies donating money.'

The children came in July for three weeks of fun, fresh air, fresh food and a boost to their immune systems in a clean environment away from the polluted atmosphere of Mozyr which is situated about 50 km from Chernobyl.

They would each return home with a year's supply of vitamins kindly sourced by a staff member in Wexford General Hospital and in some cases, with complimentary new glasses supplied by Ryan's Opticians in the Bullring who offered free eye tests to all the visiting children.

Wexford Omniplex Cinema and Playzone gave them a day out and John F. Kennedy Park allowed free admission.

'Over the years, we received generous support from a large number of businesses and individuals,' said Phil who travelled to Mozyr every year to make preparations for the visit.

Organisers and parents in Mozyr were very sad to hear about the Wexford group's disbandment. 'I think they understood it was becoming difficult to keep it up,' said Phil. 'In 2015, I said to Nina, the interpreter, I think this is possibly going to be the last time. They were heartbroken but they also accept that all good things come to an end.'

The disbandment of Friends of Chernobyl won't affect the many long-term relationships that have developed between families in Wexford and Mozyr. Phil still keeps in touch by Skype with two interpreters/co-ordinators Elena and Katarina who stayed with her and now have children of their own while Ann Keeling and her family have developed a very close relationship with Masha Glazko, now aged 18, who visited their home every summer for several years.

Wexford Friends of Chernobyl only covered the cost of children making their first visit to Wexford but many families paid for children to come on repeat visits.

The primary aim was to give the children a health break with doctors suggesting the experience added three years to the life of a child living in the contaminated zone, according to Phil.

'People who were 20 and 25 when the disaster happened, a lot of them have died. The soil is contaminated but still they grow their own food. Any time we travelled over, we always brought our own water and there were certain things you wouldn't eat.'

'Elena has a little boy, Artur who is six and he is often out of school due to respiratory problems. She had a baby girl about six months ago and she said to me 'I hope nothing happens to her. The shadow of what happened is always there'.

'I'm sad to have to give it up but we knew it was going to come some day. I think for a couple of years we knew it was going to come to this. Nobody else wanted to take it over.'

'There was a lot of paperwork involved. You would start in September and it would go on until just before they came. You had to send visa applications to Belarus for each child.'

'It was great to have done it. It was really lovely to do something for them. They have so little and yet they're happy with what they have,' said Phil.

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