Mr O’Leary led an Irish civic delegation to visit one of the Chernobyl Children International’s new Homes of Hope in the Glusk region of Belarus, south of Minsk during his delegation’s week-long visit to Belarus and the Ukraine ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Irina and Dima, who having raised four of their own children are now caring for 12 foster children aged six to 16, showed the delegation around their house.
Mr O’Leary, who himself comes from a family of 12, was told how the charity has bought and renovated 30 such homes all over Belarus to establish a Homes of Hope network targeting the estimated 25,000 orphans and vulnerable children living in the Chernobyl regions.
Chernobyl Children International holds the deeds to all the properties and, following an assessment, it places children in need with foster families who then move into the homes.
The charity enters into a legal agreement with the families and after 15 years, it gifts the properties to them in recognition of their contribution to caring for the children.
The programme has placed 300 children — the equivalent of closing two state-run orphanages.
Dasha, 11, who is being raised by Irina and Dima and who is already an award-winning musician, performed the tsimbaly, a traditional Belarussian string instrument for the delegation.
Chernobyl Children International voluntary CEO Adi Roche said its approach to deinstitutionalisation across Belarus has placed children like Dasha in loving homes, saving them from an uncertain life in state-care.
“These children have deep emotional and psychological scars. Many have been neglected, abused and abandoned and would have ended up in institutional care. We are endeavouring to break the cycle of poverty and abandonment in Belarus and give children a chance to live in loving homes with a real family,” she said.
Mr O’Leary, who visited the home with the city council chief executive, Ann Doherty, and the Irish ambassador to Lithuania and Belarus, David Noonan, praised the new approach.
“It is a great model of integration which is breaking the culture of institutionalisation, and lifting children out of poverty. Thanks to Irish donations and volunteers, these homes have become a real environment for change,” he said.
The delegation spent a night in the state-run Vesnova orphanage, which cares for 174 children with intellectual and physical disabilities. The delegation saw yesterday how thanks to Chernobyl Children International’s influence over the last 15 years, it is has become a flagship care centre in Belarus and is now pioneering an independent living programme, and offering its residents workshop courses.
They visited a Chernobyl Children International and Irish Aid-funded day-care centre, which is providing care to a region of 50,000 people, and visited the homes of people in rural areas who are benefiting from outreach programmes.
The delegation also met the mayors of Glusk and Gomel. The mayor is leading a civic delegation from Cork on a five-day visit to the region, organised to recognise the work of Chernobyl Children International over the last 25 years, and to mark the 30th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986.
It will include a special visit to the heart of Chernobyl’s vast nuclear exclusion site and power plant today.
The mayor will be briefed on the progress in construction of the gigantic €1.5bn steel and concrete shield, or sarcophagus, which is being built to contain the radiation in the plant. The Irish Government has contributed €8m towards the project