Rocky Mount families are again opening their homes this summer to children from Belarus who continue to be exposed to radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident.
Rocky Mount will play host to one of the larger contingencies in the country, taking in 24 Belarusian children and several translators who will be staying for six weeks starting on June 14.
The program is administered through the Zebulon-based American Belarussian Relief Organization.
Since 1996, Rocky Mount families have been among the most active in the country in the program.
“In total, the ABRO organization is having 500 kids come over to the U.S.,” said Sam Petteway, who heads up the Nash County ABRO organization. “Rocky Mount will be one of the larger groups, probably the second or third largest group in the country.”
The families and local churches are helping to pay for each child’s $2,000 trip over here and their food and activities.
“They include the kids in their own summer fun,” Petteway said. “Maybe 100 percent of the kids who come over initially have never seen the ocean, never seen the mountains, never been on roller coaster, never had a banana split.
“The first time a kid comes here and is taken to Harris Teeter their eyes are popping out of their heads. They haven’t seen anything as fantastic as the inside of Harris Teeter. They are not too difficult to entertain, because they are in awe of the lifestyle we have in Rocky Mount.”
Besides having a good time, the children get out of radiation that has persisted in their hometown since the plant accident, which has caused numerous health problems. They also will receive free dental and eye care, and those that have obvious medical needs will receive additional care for free.
American Belarussian Relief Organization’s website states that its goal is to assist with bringing hope into the children’s lives by providing clean food, rest and sanctuary in a radiation-free environments, as well as medical evaluation and treatment as needed.
Belarus, a small country that was part of the former Soviet Union, received approximately 70 percent of the radiation damage from the April 26, 1986, Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident. The explosion released 90 times as much radiation as the Hiroshima bomb.
This has taken its toll on children’s immune systems, American Belarussian Relief Organization’s website states.
“This has resulted in thyroid disease and thyroid cancer, an increase of leukemia and birth defects, and vitamin deficiencies,” the website states.
Host families in Rocky Mount have often requested that they take in the same child each summer, saying they get as much benefit from the experience as the children. Some families have grown so attached to the children that they have traveled to Belarus to visit them.
For the second summer, Michael and Wanda Sohn and their two children are hosting a 12-year-old Belarussian girl, Zita.
“Zita is like another daughter to us and sister to my children,” Wanda Sohn said.
Wanda Sohn said hosting Zita has caused her family to reflect upon itself.
“We realized that we don’t sit down as a family for dinner,” she said. “It made us more conscious of that. We’d pray together (when Zita was around), have Bible study as a family – things we took for granted in our busy schedule.”
Henry Williams, who is another host, said there is also a spiritual aspect of sponsoring a child.
“One reason is getting (the child) closer to ministry of Christ, our religious ways over here,” he said. “It’s nothing we push on them. We do have Bible studies twice a week.”
Petteway said some medical experts have said that the six weeks away from the exposure to the radiation in Belarus could add a year to a child’s life.
“There are reports that say to get out of that area for six weeks helps re-boost their immune system,” she said. “If you were to take a picture of kids the day the get here versus the day they go home, some of the kids look totally different. Some of that is due to sunlight and good food, more food than they are used to eating.”
The host families also ask their personal dentists whether they can donate some time to examine and treat their guests.
“Historically, there has been 100 percent participation (by the dentists),” Petteway said. “These children don’t have dental care or don’t seek dental care back home because their families can’t afford it.”