On Tuesday next, December 19, Santa will provide a special through the night sleigh-ride escort to Dublin Airport for a group of children from the Chernobyl affected regions of Belarus with special needs who will begin a two-week long Christmas rest and recuperation stay in counties across Ireland.
Host families from nine counties will welcome the children for the start of their life-prolonging respite holiday, during which time radiation levels in the children drop by nearly 50 per cent and up to two years is added to their life expectancy.
The trip, code named Operation Sleigh Ride, has been organised by Adi Roche’s Chernobyl Children International (CCI ) charity which has brought more than 25,500 children to Ireland to stay with host families since 1991.
Within this group of remarkable children is 17-year-old Igor Shadzhou who lives in Vesnova Children's Mental Asylum, who will be returning to Mayo to spend Christmas with his Irish family.
Igor is just one of thousands of children who were abandoned to bleak orphanages as babies. When CCI first found Igor, the conditions in which he lived were inhumane. His communications skills were almost non-existent and he was prone to biting, scratching, and spitting. Igor has lived with huge physical impairment all his life.
Through CCI’s intervention, Igor has been able to receive the love, care, and attention he so desperately needed and deserved.
A wheelchair specially adapted to Igor’s needs has given him mobility and freedom. Igor loves to listen to music - he is a DJ at heart who loves spending time with his host brothers over Christmas, catching up on the latest chart hits.
Igor comes to Ireland twice a year as part of CCI’s Rest and Recuperation Programme to his host family Marie and Dermot Cox in Castlebar. Marie is the medical coordinator for the charity, but she volunteers her time to host Igor, on top of her work with the charity.
Igor will stay with Marie and Dermot Cox during his time in Castlebar. Marie Cox told The Mayo Advertiser: "It’s a lifelong bond. Originally when we brought Igor in, it was actually as a medical emergency. From there it just stemmed that we brought him in every Christmas and summer afterwards. Last summer when he was going back he knew that he would be here again for Christmas, telling us he will be back when 'Santa is here'. He has his box of toys that is put away for when he comes back again. He has his own corner and bed and everything and a real sense of place in the house."
Marie makes regular visits to Belarus to oversee the charity’s Irish-funded medical care programme and the development of its de-institutionalisation programmes. "I first got involved a long time ago, around the year 2000 after my youngest son was born," she said. "The Castlebar outreach group were fundraising outside SuperValu and they were looking for people to come forward as host families so I just put my name down.”
Igor can look forward to a big welcome in Dublin Airport and back home in Mayo this Christmas.