The Chernobyl disaster was a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred in 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. An explosion and fire released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, which spread over much of the western USSR and Europe. 31 people died directly as a result of the accident.
The tragedy of Chernobyl has not been confined to 1986. The generations born in the disaster's aftermath continue to pay the price for events which occurred before they drew breath. The consequences of the disaster have been transmitted between generations via genetics and effects to the environment. Long-term effects include cancers and major physical disabilities. Today, thousands of children born inside the affected area suffer from these disabilities and ailments.
Many have been abandoned by their families from birth due their poor health, being left in the care of orphanages and institutions. The plight of these children has touched people from far and wide, including here in Ireland. The Sunflowers Chernobyl Appeal is a voluntary organisation based in Co Galway, dedicated to helping special needs children in Belarus whose lives continue to be affected by the disaster.
Part of the charity's work involves bringing the children to Ireland for a month every summer. Loughrea native John Harris has been involved in this initiative for more than 14 years: "We got involved initially by accident. Our own three children are involved in Irish dancing and the mummers. The mummers rang us one night in connection with a show taking place in Aughrim.
"We brought our eldest daughter to the show. She was in the house next door to the venue changing. When she came back out to me she said 'daddy, the man in the house is after showing me a video of a girl dying, is there anything we can do to help.' I thought she might have been watching a programme on television, but it was a fund raiser for Chernobyl Children.
"The man that owned the house is the leader of the charity, Pat Dillon from Aughrim. He was showing a video of a young girl named Toya who was struck by a thing called Chernobyl syndrome. She was a stunningly beautiful ten-year old. Slowly, over a twelve year period, her body just faded away.
"We asked Pat if there was anything we could do to help. He told us there was plenty of other children who needed help, so we took two children that summer for two weeks. We got so attached to them that we have been taking more ever since. We take our holidays from work in the summer to look after them, and thoroughly enjoy it.
"The majority of the children have special needs children and come from an orphanages in northern and southern Belarus. The two children I have this year have been in orphanages for an extended period. Oleg, the boy, is 18 and physically disabled. He has no arms and prosthetic legs. He has been institutionalised since he was born after being abandoned due to his disability.
"He was over here with us last year, and for the year he was living in Belarus he kept going with the knowledge that he was going to be coming back. The trip gives them hope, that is the way I see it. Oleg is unreal in everything he does. He is such a positive young fellow. If you get up in the morning in bad humour, he will lift you out of it. The craic you have with them, they just lift your heart and put you in good humour."
Sunflowers has undertaken a lot of work in Belarus in order to improve the lives of the children there. "The areas we worked in are very poor," John says. "We have undertaken projects in Bogushevsk orphanage in north eastern Belarus. There are 256 kids there ranging in age from six to 25. They all have a special need of some nature. The conditions there were poor, but we have done a lot of work to improve things.
"On the perimetre of the orphanage we built two houses for independent living. The older boys and girls use them. They have a house mother from the orphanage staying with them, tutoring them, and generally helping. They are minded, but at a distance. It is designed to teach them how to be independent. They grow their own vegetables, keep poultry, pigs, and cows. Any excess they have they sell it at the market to make some money for themselves.
"We built a third house about a mile away which has no house mother. It is kind of a stepping stone process. The children stay in the houses near the orphanage first, and then move to the house further away when they are ready, where they are more or less completely independent.
"The authorities in Belarus have supported this and think it is a great idea. From what I have heard they are considering independent living for other orphanages. It would be great, but it remains to see how far that goes."
The Sunflowers Chernobyl appeal is a completely voluntary organisation, and so donations are a must if it is to keep up its good work. To get involved or make a donations visit www.chernobylchildren.ie, or contact charity director Pat Dillon on 087 4172307.