By David Hennessy
Current London Rose Laura Kennedy recently joined a large group of roses and escorts that included reigning Rose of Tralee Dr Sinéad Flanagan to travel to Vesnova, Belarus to volunteer in the orphanages that help children affected by the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.
Laura told The Irish World: “I’m absolutely delighted that I went and I was able to put a smile on some of their faces, give them a hug, give them a cuddle. It was just really special.
“It was really hard at times: Some of the things that we were exposed to. Just seeing what these poor kids, what their quality of life is like: I found that really hard.
“They have no parents. It’s almost like there’s nobody coming to show them or give them any love other than the carers.”
It is estimated that about 60% of the radiation fallout landed in Belarus and it is predicted that 80% of people in Belarus will be affected by the disaster for infinite decades to come.
“The carers are very good to them. It’s just I found that really sad to see that these kids were just normal little children and there’s nobody there for them. It breaks my heart that there’s nobody coming to visit them. For me anyway, it made our visit all the more poignant really that we were the people who were there to give them some extra attention for the few days we were in Vesnova.”
The children in the Vesnova Children’s Mental Institution have either lost their parents or been abandoned by families who could no longer care for them. All of them suffer from severe illnesses and disabilities and require a high level of medical and nursing care.
“We were led by some volunteers who work with Chernobyl Children International. Generally in the morning we would help with feeding of what’s called the high dependency unit.
“A lot of those kids would be non-verbal and wouldn’t really have mobility either so need full-time care. We were feeding them in the morning, getting them ready, bringing them out to the day room, being able to play them.
“When you bring them out to the day room, you see so many of them just light up that they were being played with, we had lots of toys that we brought with us.
“We would read to them, we would sing to them and before you knew it, it was lunch time again so we would be feeding them in the day room and then eventually later on in the day bringing them back to their beds.
“In between all that, we were often visiting other units within the orphanage. They might be older kids or young adults. Some of them live more independently.
“We went and visited a graveyard one day which was definitely very sad to see. Some of the children who lived in the orphanage are now buried there.
“One of the initiatives that Chernobyl Children International has is called Homes of Hope where two parents will foster some children who are in institutions giving them a much better quality of life, better upbringing that they’re in a family home. We got to visit a Home of Hope and a family one evening which is lovely.
“It was really special. I’m delighted I went. Adi Roche (founder, Chernobyl Children International) joined us. That was incredible to hear from her, she’s truly inspirational when she speaks about the work of Chernobyl Children’s International and some of the things she first saw when she went out there.
“There was hugs all round when we were leaving. They were so good to us and definitely sad to see us leave but we were more sad to leave them. There were tears. There were lovely moments but there is also a sadness to it as well.
“I’m definitely doing to return there.”
Laura, from Glenville in Cork, is a Young Leader with the Ireland Fund of Great Britain and Chairperson of the London Irish Graduate Network. She also does work with the Make a Wish Foundation.