Since becoming the 2018 Galway Rose, it can easily be said that my life has been turned upside-down. I have been taken on the most incredible rollercoaster ride, a once in a lifetime experience. On the face of it, it can often be perceived as a year of fancy dresses and glamour. But there is so much more to it than what meets the eye.
On Saturday February 16, a group of 19 Roses and Escorts from The Rose of Tralee Festival travelled from Ireland to Belarus with Adi Roche’s Chernobyl Children. Following months of preparation and fundraising, we were finally going to come face-to-face with the reality that is and was, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
In Chernobyl, on April 26, 1986, a reactor containing some of the most dangerous and deadly radioactive contaminants, exploded. The radioactive plume reached 7km high into the night sky, before being carried by the wind onto the neighbouring countries of Belarus and Western Russia. The UN Report states that Chernobyl released over 400 times (and not 100 times as originally quoted ) the amount of radiation that was released in the Hiroshima nuclear bombing. It remains, without doubt, the world’s greatest nuclear disaster of all time. A disaster, whereby poisonous radiation will survive in the Earth for more the 25,000 years, affecting our planet and future, innocent generations to come.
Following a three-hour journey from Minsk Airport, into what can only be described as “the middle of nowhere”, our bus finally came to stop outside the Children’s Orphanage and Mental Asylum in Vesnova. We did not know what to expect, but we were prepared to give everything we had.
The orphanage is home to approximately 170 children ranging in age from four to 20 years of age. Like their ages, their medical problems range from severe deformities and mental issues, right up to slight mental effects with no physical problems. The children have beds, are fed regularly and are changed, but that is where the care ends for most.
In my life, never did I expect to see so many children abandoned by their families because of their differences. Never did I think that in the twenty-first century, young adults and children would be so segregated from society as a result of an event that had happened before they were born. Yet in saying that, never could I have imagined that children so starved of affection throughout their lives could be as caring and loving as the children of Vesnova. They are the strongest, most incredible group of children I have ever met. They have stolen my heart.
Thanks to the amazing Adi Roche and her team who have diligently recruited Irish volunteers like ourselves, the conditions of the orphanage are a far cry from where they were thirty-three years ago. For many, there is access to classrooms, woodwork shops, and craft rooms. For some, the “Homes of Hope” programme breaks the institutional cycle, allowing children to live in loving homes, with a foster family.
In recent times, a number of new homes have been built on the grounds of the orphanage, providing young adults with the opportunity to learn basic life skills and to move to supervised, independent living. In addition, a community home in the nearby village of Glusk allows for a small number of young men to live in a safe environment alongside a carer, whilst working to become valued members of the community.
It goes without saying that these developments could not have happened without the consistent and continuous support of the Irish government and people. Every small donation made to GoFundMe pages, fundraisers and bucket collections has built the orphanage we see today. Our team alone raised over €50,000 and received wonderful contributions of supplies from local businesses and friends. To those who donated, believe me, your contributions make a huge difference. For this, I am eternally grateful.
While all of this is huge progress, Adi Roche’s mission is far from over.
April 26 will mark the third “International Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day”, we take this day to reflect again on the legacy of the Chernobyl disaster. It remains a constant reminder of how precious and fragile life has become. One day soon, I will return to Vesnova. But until then, I look forward to welcoming a small group of Chernobyl Children to Galway in June, as a part of their respite trip home to Ireland. Forever remember, “There is hope, it is you.”