Charity volunteering is one of those things that people talk of doing but never get round to it, and it becomes even more topical around Christmas time. TheCity’s Patrice Brady caught up with Chernobyl volunteer, Searlait McCann from Dublin and asked her about the experience of Volunteering in Belarus with the Burren Chernobyl Project and why she took the plunge into volunteering.
“Well, I’ve kind of always been involved in different kinds of fundraising because my father had a double transplant so we were very involved with the Irish Kidney Association. However, I had wanted to work with children and travelling to volunteer abroad always appealed to me,” explained Searlait
“When I decided to finally take the plunge and actually go away I had initially planned to go to somewhere like India but one of my college friends travelled to Belarus with the Burren Chernobyl Project and as soon as she started talking about it I knew that it was what I wanted to do.”
The Burren Chernobyl Project is a relatively small organisation based in Ennistymon Co. Clare. It was established in 1993 to help with the child victims of the fallout from the Chernobyl reactor explosion, However their work has now extended to looking after children and adults. Many projects have been carried out to assist the children and their families who are enduring the effects of exposure to radiation and the other social and economic problems facing them in Belarus.
“It’s really hard to put into words the experience of travelling to Belarus to work in some pretty upsetting settings with some truly incredible people. No matter how much you hear about it and try to prepare for it, it’s completely different than what you expect once you get there, and different things stand out to different volunteers.
“We arrived in Gorodishche Asylum late at night after a long day of travelling. Gorodishche is home to 220 children and adults, officially aged between 4 and 25, however due to the physical and mental abilities of some of the residents they have stayed in Gorodishche past their 25th birthdays as moving them to an adult asylum would be too upsetting and disorientating. On the first day we met Iryna, head ‘Mama’ (nurse) in the Asylum who was to be our translator and ‘minder’ for the next 10 days, but she turned out to be so much more,” said Searlait.
“An absolutely incredible woman, who really has become something of a mother figure to all of the residents at Gorodishche. We then threw a party for one of the residents who was moving on to one of the adult homes. We were excited about this as it felt like we would be easing ourselves into the whole process. It was a great day, yet it was extremely sad to see how heartbroken his friends- who had become brothers to him- were to say goodbye, as they weren’t likely to ever see him again.”
“The next few days we spent in the asylum helping out with the various groups, of which there are 7. We would get up at about 9 and would stay in the asylum until lunchtime and then again until around 7pm when we could get dinner. In the evenings we would go back outside and spend time with some of the older residents playing football, playing on the swings and going for walks.
“Group one and two are made up mostly of teenagers with medium-severe mental disabilities. We spent time taking this group for walks, painting their nails and feeding yoghurts to those who cannot feed themselves.
“Group three is perhaps one of the most upsetting groups for some volunteers. This is the group of the most physically disabled residents who are all bedbound. It is separated into two parts, each referred to simply as ‘Big 3’ and ‘Small 3’. Because of the lack of funding for Gorodishche from the Belarusian Government and the high costs of disposable nappies in Belarus the residents are limited to one disposable nappy per day, meaning they spend the rest of the day in stiff, makeshift nappies made from bedsheets.
“This results in a smell that cannot be described but one you will never forget! One of the most upsetting thing about this group for me, and the other first time volunteers there, (apart from the smell) was the stunted growth of so many of the residents due to a lifetime confined to a crib. There were residents who looked like toddlers but who were actually 18 and 19 years old. This is something that is extremely hard to believe and accept even after seeing that it is reality. We fed group three their lunch and dinner, this was very difficult and upsetting at first as we had to feed them lying down which felt extremely inhumane,” explained Searlait.
“Group four is the group that was most unsettling for me. I found it most upsetting as it seemed to me that the majority of the children in this group would be able to live relatively normal lives if they were receiving adequate medical attention or if they lived in a country that was ‘up to date’. Some of the illnesses of this group include epilepsy, autism and Cerebral Palsy, which has only recently been recognised as an illness in Belarus. We didn’t spend as much time with this group as we did with others, I’m not really sure why but the Mamas were extremely protective and were reluctant to allow us to photograph this room.”
Searlait spoke of a lot of the children with emotion especially when she explained some of the children’s backgrounds. A lot of the background stories are extremely sad and often hard to take. Such as one little girl in this group who has down syndrome whose mother is a dentist in the local village but has never come to visit her daughter. Another example is Alosha in ‘Big 3’ who is epileptic. Alosha is the resident who had the biggest affect on me personally. He is the same age as my sister, 24. Alosha’s mother is a doctor, who unable or unwilling to cope with her son’s seizures and left him in bed until she eventually left him in Gorodishche. Alosha has become completely emaciated and is unable to hold down much food.
“What struck me so strongly about him is that although he doesn’t talk, he has the saddest eyes I have ever seen and it struck me so strongly that he seemed to be the only resident of Gorodishche aware of how unfair his situation is.
“Group 6 is made up of the older, most able bodied boys. These are the most independent of all the groups as they spend their days working on the Asylum’s farm. They also have their own little sitting room with a TV. It was mainly with this group that we spent our evenings.
“Group seven is quite similar to groups one and two however they are generally more physically able. We did a lot of the same things with this group as we did with G1 and G2 however some of them took part in our games of football, we’d paint their nails and do their hair and they’d do the same for us.
“I think it would be impossible to travel to Gorodishche and not remain involved with Burren Chernobyl Project. It is definitely something I want to do again in the future.”