Offering a holiday lifeline to the children of Chernobyl

Many of us will remember that fateful day in April 1986 when the world held its breath as an unprecedented disaster unfolded before our eyes on TV news bulletins.

An explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine released large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere over much of what was the western Soviet Union and parts of Europe.

The blackened and shattered site remains to this day one of the iconic images of the 1980s – a chilling reminder of risk posed by the use of nuclear power.

The battle to contain the radiation ultimately involved an estimated half a million workers and between 1986 and 2000 more than 350,000 people had to be moved out of the most contaminated areas of the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus and resettled in new homes.

Just 31 deaths were directly attributed to the outbreak – all of whom were people who either worked at the reactor or for emergency crews.

However, various studies have conservatively estimated that tens of thousands of additional cases of cancer and subsequent deaths have been caused by exposure to radioactive material.

In 1995 John and Julie Gater, of Light Oaks, were watching a television documentary on the after-effects of the disaster and were so moved by the story of one little boy – Igor – that they decided to become involved with a charity which provides hope and respite to the children of Chernobyl.

John, aged 50, said: “Igor was born with severe deformities as a result of the radiation but he had a personality which was 10 miles wide.

“It was that which inspired us to ultimately become involved with the Chernobyl Children’s Project (UK).

“They said they’d love to have us but that there wasn’t a group in our area and that we’d have to go away and find 10 friends who would be prepared to help us. We didn’t want to be put off by that and so we went away, and – because we are Christian – we prayed and decided to set up our own group based at St. Luke’s Church in Endon.”

Seventeen years later and the group is still going strong – having arranged trips to the UK for more than 470 children and young people and a handful of parents from contaminated areas of the former Soviet Union.

During that time more than three dozen have stayed with the Gaters in their own home.

John and Julie’s branch of the charity covers the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Moorlands area and they have a network of families willing to take in children and young people and help with looking after them during month-long visits to the UK which include trips to beauty spots and fun days out to places including the Alton Towers resort.

John, a garage proprietor, explained that doctors in Belarus say that four weeks of clean air, fresh food and a happy holiday improves the children’s health for at least two years and gives them a better chance of either recovering from or avoiding serious illness.

He added: “Julie and I have four children and, at the time we became involved with the charity, our youngest was only three.

“It has been a big commitment in terms of time and effort but neither Julie nor I regret a single moment of it.”

Anyone wishing to contact the charity to offer help can log on to: http://www.chernobyl-children.org.uk or contact John and Julie by ringing 01782 535000.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

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