Part 2 of our interview:
Jane Whitty: I know especially from working on Voices From Chornobyl that Chornobyl is not, like you were saying, it’s something people don’t really want to think about anymore. How did you first get involved? What brought you into this organization?
Kathy Ryan: Well, I got involved during the filming of the HBO special Chernobyl Heart. I went out during the filming of that, during the time I went out you know I’d heard about Chernobyl but I presumed that was all taken care of I guess. You know it just kind of defies logic, its one of those things, I’m 50 years old now so I was 25 when it happened and so even though it does not makes any sense I had just kind of forgotten about it because other things happen in life. There are other disasters and other things that just take up your attention. So I was shocked I have to say, to realize that it was still affecting, that there was still the impact of low levels of radiation over a long period of time that I did not quite realize how the disaster had affected people from a social and economic standpoint. And I guess it makes sense that it would, I mean look at when this happened, it happened at just the worst time for this country, the former Soviet Union. And areas like Ukraine and Belarus should have been well positioned with their fertile land and such to enter a new economy and then this happened. You can say a situation that would have been bad anyway was made worse. And then the people that live in that area don’t believe that they were told the truth about the disaster, and they weren’t. In an environment where people tend to be distrustful of their leadership anyway it really pulled the rug out from under them. To this day when you go into, not necessarily the abandoned regions, where I have been, but in the areas that are contaminated to various levels, where people are still living they have all these protocols for how many times they have to wash to their potatoes and what they soak and what they eat and what they don’t eat. And so it lingers.
JW: Wow. I know you have described that one experience driving up to that home and seeing the cemetery there, but do you have one memory that maybe stands out, that was like wow this is working, or we’re finally reaching out and affecting this disaster in anyway?
KR: Well, you know I’ll never forget the day 12 young men from the Vesnovo asylum, whom I and those of us who had been volunteering for many years moved into their news homes. Just after seeing the horror of institutionalization, actually you can go onto YouTube and see a speech one of the boys did.
JW: Yeah, I’ve watched it; it’s very moving.
KR: I think that’s probably the day that I realized that real change was being made. That something really historical was happening. They moved in, we had a big party and local social services and government representatives from all over Belarus came to see that, yes it is possible for disabled people to live independently. And perhaps this is something that could be replicated throughout the country. So that’s an area that we’re are really concentrating on right now. But that was very moving. That’s the positive side, there is also, it’s hard to go to a graveyard and see these little unmarked grave of children that we’ve gotten very attached to over the years. To realize that they’ve spent their lives in an institution, when it did not have to be that way. So watching the sickness and the ill health can be very difficult. There are a number of children in our hospice program. We deal with children dying all the time, which is hard under any circumstances. On the other hand there is nothing like seeing these boys moving into their own home and going to visit them and they can fix you a cup of tea and have some pride at how they are living. Or going into one of our homes of hope seeing a bunch of children chattering around the table and eating, playing with their new brothers and sisters, in the loving arms of their new parents. That’s one of those really wonderful moments.
JW: For anyone who comes upon our blog and is reading this, what would be the thing that you promote most as the best way to get involved for somebody who is looking to help? Either through your organization in particular or just to affect what’s going on in Chernobyl, in any way they can. What would be the way that you would suggest to get involved?
KR: Well in terms of the Chernobyl issue in general I would like people to be aware that this happened. It’s a part of our history, it’s not as well know perhaps in the United States as in Europe because it was right in Europe’s back yard. But I’d like people to learn more about it and be aware. In terms of how they can specifically help an organization like Chernobyl Children International, we would be very interested in any sort of medical volunteers, we are always looking for physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, medical personnel, nurses who might be interested in volunteering their time. We are also looking for anybody who would be interested in participating in fundraising activities for us. If you work for a business perhaps that business would like to sponsor a Home of Hope, perhaps that business would like to sponsor a cardiac mission or even one surgery. Perhaps people can organize fundraiser at their school or their place of employment. An organization like ours really needs to have funding in order to make things happen and we need to have volunteers who will fundraise and work hands on with communities in Ukraine and in Belarus.
JW: Thank you so much for talking the time to speak with me, we really appreciate it.
Please take some time to get better acquainted with the work Chernobyl Children International is doing. Here is their contact info again:
YouTube Channel: ChernobylChildren