Louise Mackinlay, manager of the Cable & Wireless Worldwide Data Centre at Windmill Hill Business Park, describes the week in March spent in Belarus with colleague Dan Baker and Gin McGiffin from Oakhurst, Swindon coordinator of Chernobyl Children in Need (CCIN).
We were thrilled to be invited to Belarus in March by Gin McGiffin of Chernobyl Children in Need (CCIN). To have the opportunity to see first hand the living conditions of the Belarusian people in the contaminated region of Gomel, just 30km from the Chernobyl exclusion zone, to see where the money raised by the Swindon Community Group has been spent, was well worth braving the plummeting temperatures of -15 degrees.
Our main aim was to visit the children we sponsor as a site and visit our ‘cow projects’. A number of our colleagues raised money for our first cow, and CCIN’s first sustainable project, by running the Reading Half Marathon in 2010. Cow number one, or "Chayka", as she is affectionately known by the family who were selected as suitable, hardworking people who could benefit from this type of aid, was due to have a calf on 07 March.
Chayka has given the family fresh milk since she arrived and the children are now healthier because of it. The birth of the calf then provides the family with options and allows them to take their next step in self sufficiency. More livestock is on the agenda and any surplus products that are not consumed by the family can be sold in the village for a little extra money. Despite working a 12 hour day, 7 days a week at a farm many kilometres away with only a bicycle for transport, Mr Gorniak said it is this gift that "has allowed him to step on to the first rung of the ladder".
Just before Christmas a number of our colleagues set about fundraising for CCIN. Dan spent a day making tea for colleagues whilst dressed as Mrs Santa Claus! He raised so much he was able to fund the purchase of cow number two and, whilst in Belarus, we selected a family to receive it. Named "March", the cow was delivered during our visit and the chosen family were astounded but delighted to have been selected for this gift. They invited us into their home to say thank you and welcomed us with such gratitude that it was impossible not to become emotional. The children were so excited at the new addition and looking forward to helping with the daily chores to ensure that the cow is properly looked after.
Cows are purchased from the local collective farm and cost just £750 including insurance. It is incredibly humbling to see how this money can change a family’s life and how hard the Belarusian people are prepared to work once given a helping hand.
This led us to think about other ways we can introduce a self-sustainable lifestyle to more families and we’ve obtained prices for other livestock such as pigs, rabbits and chickens. We then bought three families 10 chickens each, at a cost of £50 per family. This means some of the poorest children will now get vital protein with a simple egg each morning before school.
Our first impressions of Belarus were of poverty, depression, disrepair and of course, the radiation levels. In the houses, many windows are boarded up, electricity is not used because it can’t be paid for and the cupboards are bare. There are hardly any washing facilities and toilets are primitive and located outside. Winter temperatures are harsh and life is very difficult for the families living there.
We were advised not to eat foods that would be highly contaminated such as mushrooms, berries and dairy products. Contamination is only one of the difficulties associated with living in this region but because it isn’t visible, it’s very easy to forget about it.
Our week began with visits to the local schools and the difference in those that have received aid and those that haven’t was clear to see. Poor sanitary conditions in the schools that have not yet
been renovated were obvious the second we walked through the main school doors. Schooling is vital to the children, not just from an educational perspective, but also in terms of providing a clean, safe and warm environment in contrast to what many of them experience at home.
CCIN has done a fantastic job in improving the school facilities in Ozarichi and many of the children are now individually sponsored, which means funding for healthy school meals and fresh fruit will continue. It was evident how much the teachers care for the children and appreciate the work done by the charity.
We took many pictures of children that still need sponsorship for circulation back in the UK. Support from individuals is growing but more sponsors are needed and we saw with our own eyes the incredible difference just £12.50 per month makes to a child. CCIN have set themselves an ambitious target of September 2011 to get every child in the Kindergarten sponsored.
The children slowly build relationships with their sponsors through the exchange of letters. Neither of us had realised the importance of this, or understood the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes by so many hardworking people until we were faced with assisting Vera, our interpreter, in translating bundles of letters into the late hours of every evening. Some of the letters were heartbreaking as children relayed to their sponsors the daily struggle to overcome negative situations caused by the harsh reality of life here.
Dan and I were staggered that the cost of food and basic necessities is similar to that of the UK considering the average wage is in the region of just $100 US per month. I bought some nappies for the mother of a newborn baby and had to pay more than £20 for a pack that had already been opened. Nappies are usually sold individually in Belarus as the cost of a whole pack is simply unaffordable.
We were delighted to see that the aid we send by container shipment twice a year is getting straight to the people who need it most. We ask all colleagues to donate useful items throughout the year and every six months we package up individual parcels for our sponsored children. A shipment had just been released prior to our visit and we were excited to see one of our parcels inside a house we visited. It was this small thing that linked the two worlds for me personally.
We were truly welcomed with open arms by the Belarusian people and it’s been an experience Dan and I will never forget. We were apprehensive beforehand, simply not knowing what to expect, but the friendliness of the people, the adversity within which the families cope and the lasting impression that however small our gesture might be, it really does make a difference to these people’s lives, has only motivated us to do more.
If you would like to sponsor a child or could purchase a cow or other livestock for a needy family, please contact Gin McGiffin at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information on the charity’s work can be found at www.ccin.co.uk