Two men from Cork are taking two weeks out of their time to transport vital aid to help people whose lives were destroyed by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
They will spend four-and-a-half days driving the truck to the country after working around the clock for the last few months to make the heroic journey a reality, writes Sarah Horgan of Cork's Evening Echo.
While Michael Downey has yet to see the country, Tony Quirke, who hails from Blackrock and now lives in Ballymacoda, has been visiting Belarus for 20 years.
“Before the recession, I was going out there up to three times a year. But when the Celtic tiger lost its bite, we were forced to pull back,” he said.
Tony began travelling to Chernobyl under the umbrella of the charity Chernobyl Aid Ireland.
The truck driver spends much of the year collecting supplies to fill the vehicle with everything from toiletries like shampoos and toothpaste to children’s clothing.
“I couldn’t believe that places like this actually existed,” he said. “It was a huge shock the first time but you can’t dwell on the horror and one just has to hope that things will get better. As soon as I’m home each year I’m loading the truck again. It’s such a huge project so it has to be started again straight away.”
He lauded the people of Cork for their generosity. “The staff at Johnson & Johnson have an allowance for toiletries but chose to donate the products to the collection instead.
“The company then matched their offers so it worked both ways. We have to be careful when opening the doors as we fear the truck might burst at the seams,” he joked.
“It’s full to capacity now as everyone has been so generous. The staff provided labour, helping us to box and load the remaining items. We would like to say a special thank you to Tracey Curtin from Johnson & Johnson who has been instrumental in driving donations.”
Tony has always been passionate about giving to those less fortunate and he underlined the rewarding nature of his volunteering work. “While I never experienced what many people in Belarus have been through, we didn’t have a lot growing up which is why I like to give back. Children back then just didn’t have the niceties we have today.
“The generosity people have shown towards this cause has been unbelievable. I brought a full trailer of toys which were collected in Youghal. “
Tony particular enjoys seeing the children’s reactions to the trucks.
“Last time I was over, the children were with their teachers praying at a shrine when they saw the six trucks coming and just scattered. The teacher had some job getting everyone back,” he said.
The truck will become a home to Tony and Michael for up to 14 days as they make the long trek. “We have a fridge, bunk beds in the truck to sleep, and will have DVDs to watch during our down time. We might not have all the comforts of home but all these things certainly help.”
Their trip comes 30 years after the Chernobyl disaster, a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred on April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the town of Pripyat, in Ukraine (then officially called the Ukrainian SSR).
The explosion and fire released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, which spread over much of the western USSR and Europe.
This article first appeared in The Evening Echo.