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Nonprofit brings friends from far away

If you see 15-year-old Zach Dahlgren and 16-year-old Zhenya Novik together, you’d never guess they aren’t brothers.

They have grown up together, in a way. Zhenya comes from Belarus, in eastern Europe, and has visited Zach at his Grass Valley home for the past eight years.

He comes to the U.S. with help from the Nevada County Chernobyl Children’s Project – a local nonprofit organization that arranges recuperative visits for children affected by a 1986 accident at a nuclear plant in Chernobyl, a Ukrainian town close to Belarus.



According to Jennifer Dahlgren, Zach’s mother, this year, 25 children – aged 8 through 17 – have come from Belarus.

The project hosted a welcome dinner Monday evening for the young guests and their host families at the community hall adjacent to St. Patrick’s Church in Grass Valley.




“It’s nice to be back,” Zhenya said in a soft-spoken manner. “It’s good to see my friends and family.”

This year, Zhenya plans to learn to drive with Zach, Jennifer Dahlgren said. The family also plans to fish, hike and bike.

Over the years, Zach and Zhenya also have developed common interests such as playing soccer, watching baseball games in Sacramento and Oakland, listening to music and reading.

“It’s just like having a brother,” said Zach, an only child, about his European friend who also has no siblings. “We are into the same kind of stuff.”

Jennifer Dahlgren decided to host a child from the Chernobyl Children’s Project only after she made up her mind to adopt a child, she said.

Jennifer Dahlgren and her husband, Eric Dahlgren, have paid the airfare and health insurance for Zhenya for the past several years. The Chernobyl Children’s Project pays those costs only the first time, Jennifer Dahlgren said.

“It’s fun to have him here,” Zach’s mother said. “The house is always very quiet when he leaves.”

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To contact Soumitro Sen, e-mail soumitros@theunion.com or call 477-4229.


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