The sound of water splashing and children laughing rivaled the upbeat music playing at The Angus Barn Tuesday afternoon as more than 60 Belarusian kids gathered for a joint birthday party. They were far away from the lingering radiation left behind in their home country, splashing down waterslides while hot dogs and hamburgers waited for them under the pavilion.
The kids, ages 6 to 16, are part of a Raleigh charity program that brings children suffering from the aftereffects of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion in Ukraine to the United States for the summer.
The children get access to free health care, like pediatrician appointments, and dental work, and get a chance to breathe clean air for six weeks while living in Raleigh.
They’re generally from poverty-stricken families or rough backgrounds in Belarus, said Chandler Ellis, the founder and executive director of Overflowing Hands. She’s been running the program for 13 years.
A couple of years in, Ellis realized that the children had never celebrated their birthdays; many didn’t even know when their birthday was. Her friend Van Eure volunteered to host a birthday party at her restaurant, The Angus Barn.
She’s been hosting the party for the past 11 years.
The kids enjoy pony rides, inflatables, water games and food all courtesy of Eure and other vendors in the community.
Nastiya Paprauka, one of the interns working for the program, attended the program herself for four years. Now 19, she now works as a chaperone, the first of the children to make it through the program and come back as an Overflowing Hands intern.
“Where we live there is contamination from radiation, so here is very nice because the air is clean,” Paprauka said. “The nature is beautiful and people are kind.”
The Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded 33 years ago, killing 31 people directly, and leaving thousands more susceptible to poisonous radiation. The explosion, which was the subject of a recent HBO miniseries, happened near the border of Ukraine and Belarus, near where the children in the program have grown up.
Paprauka said she watched the first episode of the show, but it was too hard for her to continue since she grew up dealing with the lasting issues firsthand.
“It was very difficult for me to watch the other ones,” she said, noting that she knows the story from her own childhood. “Many people’s lives were destroyed. It’s a disaster, it’s very difficult.”
She said she’s glad she can return to the program that helped her and now help others.
“I’m very grateful to be back here, to breathe this air, to meet these people and to help children,” she said.
Help from the community
Carol Parker, a retiree, has been hosting the same Belarusian boy for four years through the program. He’s now almost 11 years old, quiet but seemingly healthy.
Every year, she makes sure to plan a beach trip, because the Belarusian children don’t have that opportunity back home. They all love to swim, she said.
“We find that because of Chernobyl and the contamination and radiation in their land, they are exposed to much more than our children are,” Parker said.
Their stay in Raleigh is good for their health. Being away from the contamination has been shown to reduce the level of radiation in their blood and may extend their lifespans.
“Their stay of six weeks adds two years to their life span.”
Parker credits her program child’s trips to the U.S. as the reason for his good health.
“We just appreciate the doctors and dentist and The Angus Barn that donate their time,” she said. “It’s wonderful that our community supports these kids.”
Eure said the Angus Barn wants to host this event every year.
“I just feel like if you’re a business that derives your income from the community, you have got to give back,” Eure said.
During the party, all of the children get their own personal birthday cakes that they get to decorate, Eure said. They then sing “Happy Birthday” in both English and Russian.
The majority of the kids in the program hardly speak English.
Ellis said the program can teach the kids that the world is a lot bigger than just the community they come from.
“Belarusian outreach actually means the world to me,” she said. “You’re definitely changing children’s lives. They’re learning that a whole community of people that doesn’t have to love them loves them.”
The children also participate in community service activities while they’re here.
“They’re going home with confidence and hope and our goal is that they’re gonna go home and be better citizens in their country,” Ellis said.