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Making summer magical

Alex Wagner

Sasha Borba loves playing soccer, eating pizza and eating candy until he is giddy with a sugar high. While these are seemingly normal activities for children living in the United States, life is different where 11-year-old Sasha comes from.

Sasha is one of 26 Belarusian children who will be spending the next six weeks in the area, thanks to the Nevada County Chernobyl Children’s Project and 26 welcoming families. These children will be able to enjoy all the youthful activities that make summer magical: swimming lessons, barbecues, camping trips and, of course, fireworks on the Fourth of July.

“For these children, a trip to America is like winning a prize,” said Natalia Chernetskoya, one of three interpreters joining the children from Belarus.

Founded in 1995 by the United Methodist Church in Nevada City, the Chernobyl project provides the necessary funding – about $1,200 per child – to bring kids ages 8 to 16 to stay with Nevada County families and get away from the radioactive environment still plaguing Belarus.

“Coming over here, even for six weeks, helps clear some of the radioactive elements they breathe in everyday,” Gail LaBrie, project board member, said at Thursday night’s welcome party held at St. Patrick’s Church in Grass Valley.

Round, skirted tables stacked with food, clothing, and candy-filled sand pails packed St. Patrick’s basketball gym as the children and their host families came together to kick off this summer’s events. Reflective of the weeks to come, Thursday night’s events allowed these children a chance to forget the desolate conditions of their home country, which has struggled in poverty since the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl released more than 200 times the radiation of both atomic explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

“This is when they can be children,” Laura Christofferson, children’s project president, said. “At home they have a lot of responsibilities and hardships.”

Contaminated rivers and lakes and nonexistent pools make swimming a rarity in Belarus. That’s why Tuesday and Friday swimming lessons are highly anticipated by 13-year old Lena Maiseichyk and the other Belarusian children.

“You can’t keep (Lena) out of the pool,” Christofferson said. Christofferson’s family has hosted Lena for the past three summers and plans to accompany Lena to Belarus and stay with her family for two weeks.

During their stay in the county, these children will also have the opportunity to receive first-rate dental and medical care. For some, it is the only treatment they have ever received.

“They don’t have the same kind of technology we have here,” Lindsey Robinson said. Robinson, who is a pediatric dentist in Grass Valley, gives the children free treatment each summer. Occasionally, the children come in with decayed and broken teeth from lack of adequate dental care, she said.

Christofferson said it is not just the children’s health and happiness that may improve by spending six weeks in Nevada County; all of Belarus can potentially benefit from these children’s experiences, she said.

“A Belarusian doctor visited us a few years ago and said that if any of these children go home and go into politics, their country will change a lot,” Christofferson said.

Before these children go back to Belarus and start planning the rest of their lives, they can spend the next six weeks the way summer vacation should be: basking in the hot sun, water gun in one hand and a slice of fresh watermelon in the other.

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