Back in December I spoke with Kathy Ryan of Chernobyl Children International (CCI), our partner charity, to hear what CCI is working to do and to get Kathy’s suggestions about ways for individuals to get involved.  A little background on the partnership between Voices From Chornobyl and Chernobyl Children International; in addition to raising awareness around the issue of Chornobyl one of our goals for the events this April is to raise funds for this amazing organization. All of the profits (after we pay our actors, pay for space rentals and other associated costs) from fundraising and events will be donated to CCI.

Below is part 1 of our phone interview, check back on Wednesday, 1/5 for part 2 of 2.

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Jane Whitty:  To start off if you could just tell me a little bit about Chernobyl Children International, just a little about what they do. Just so people who are not really familiar would get a sense of what you guys are working to try to do.

Kathy Ryan: Sure. Well Chernobyl Children International is an organization that works with children, families and communities that were affected by the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 and as you know with the preparations you’re making for your awareness building through Voices From Chornobyl, 2011 will mark the 25th anniversary, of the Chernobyl disaster. So, for all of that time, we were actually founded in Ireland and now we work on an international basis, we have volunteers from all over the world. We have an office in the United States and in Belarus and Ukraine. We continue to work with communities that were affected by this disaster. Even though the disaster was 25 years ago, and perhaps Chernobyl is a word that people don’t want to think about anymore, people are still being affected by this in a number of ways. Not just medically but socially and economically and even psychologically. Chernobyl remains a scar on many people that were affected. So what we do is we go into those communities and we try to put together programs that will not be short terms fixes, because mind you this happened 25 years ago, we try to put together programs that will help the people affected by the disaster and those communities become able to help themselves. Programs that will be sustainable and life changing over the longer term and generationally.

Some of the programs that you might have heard of include our cardiac surgery program. We bring volunteer cardiac teams from all over the world, mostly from the United States but really from all over the world, into Ukraine and Belarus. We operate on children who literally would die if they did not receive these surgeries. While we are out there operating on them we train the local professionals with the knowledge and training so they will be able to move forward and take care of the kids on their own, in their own countries. We started the program in Belarus and when the program started there were 7,000 children on waiting lists, waiting for surgery, and most of them would not get the surgery that they needed in order to survive. Now a days Belarus is fairly self-sufficient in terms of children’s cardiac surgery and we only go in to operate on the most serious cases and to provide training. So we’ve started to focus the program on Ukraine where 6,000 children are born every year with genetic heart diseases and only half of them will receive the operations they need to survive. So we hope to repeat the success we had in Belarus to the Ukraine.

We have other programs, we have a program called Homes of Hope where we take children out of orphanages and we place them in loving homes of their own, homes where they will grow up, where they will receive an education, where they will have a family really for the rest of their lives. That’s probably one of my favorite programs because, you know, often times we’re dealing with very difficult issues but it’s so easy to change the lives of children when you take them out of an orphanage and place them in a family environment. So we have a number of those homes going, we are always looking for sponsors for new ones. We also have at home care for seriously disabled children, we provide hospice care for children with more serious diseases, which provides not only medical but also psychological support for the families. We go into the most neglected of institutions, and that would be institutions for mentally disabled children and adults, and we have refurbished these institutions. But more importantly put together a high quality care and medical program in these institutions so that the people that live in them can lead a life of dignity that they deserve.

On that issue of mental disability we actually put together the very first independent living program for disabled young adults in Belarus. So children who have reached the age, we quickly learned from working in orphanages that you can help these kids in the orphanage but the day is going to come when they have to quote, unquote ‘graduate’. And we wondered, where did they go? And they go into terrible, dismal institutions for adults and they basically live there the rest of their lives. There’s one institution called Soltanovka, that I will never forget, driving down this long road to it, going there to visit kids who had graduated from the children’s asylum that we’d been working in, and pulling up there’s a graveyard right across. It just struck me that you know kids coming to this place going down the road know that they are never gonna come back and the first site they see is the graveyard where they are going to end up at the end of their days. So we realized it was really important, that is was really important to not just give these people humane treatment while they are in these institutions but we just have to have an exit plan to allow mentally and physically disabled children to live an independent life in society and not segregated to these institutions. So that is the independent living program.

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What to know more about Chernobyl Children International? Contact them:

Website: http://www.chernobyl-international.com

YouTube Channel: ChernobylChildren

Twitter @Chernobyl

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/ChernobylChildrenInternational