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Chernobyl children stay with families in Snohomish County for summer respite
SMOKEY POINT Dasha and Masha are both little girls who come from Belarus, but their eight-week stays with local families this summer are no mere vacation.
Belarus, an Eastern European country which borders Russia to the east, was one of the areas most affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in the neighboring Ukraine. As a result, children like Dasha and Masha have permanently weakened immune systems, which makes their visit to America a boon to their health.
Although the Chernobyl nuclear accident occurred over 20 years ago, there is still considerable low level radiation found in the food, soil and water in Belarus, said Sherry Smith, president of the Global Family Alliance. More than 70 percent of the estimated 190 tons of radioactive material blew northward and settled in the former Soviet country. There has been a significant increase in childhood thyroid cancers and other diseases since the accident. It is believed that even four weeks out of the contaminated area will help children stay healthy.
Dasha, who is staying with the Brooks family of Arlington, and Masha, who is staying with the Williams family of Stanwood, are among about 60 children brought to the Puget Sound region this summer through the Global Family Alliance Health Respite Program. After arriving at SeaTac Airport July 2, Dasha and Masha received a welcoming party and health checks in Marysville July 7.
Josh Brooks expected to spend $500 out of pocket for Dashas dental care alone, and credited the generosity of local dentists involved in the program with cutting costs from the total value of $2,000-$3,000.
She had caps put on a bunch of cavities, said Amanda Brooks, Joshs wife. The area dentists really cut us a deal. In her country, dental care isnt as regulated.
Josh explained that the program takes children from ages 7-15 because it benefits their health during their formative years.
Theyve tracked over the years that even a few weeks out of a year, out of an environment where theyre constantly battling that background radiation, can help strengthen these kids immune systems, said Josh Brooks, who said that 7-year-old Dasha shows no signs of cancer yet.
Although Dasha only knows a few words of English, Amanda Brooks laughed as they reported that she knows McDonalds, albeit one much different than the fast food chain we know in America.
Its very expensive and quite a treat for them, said Amanda Brooks.
Josh Brooks noted that Dasha seems to have overcome the language barrier with his own three daughters.
Im amazed that they can play together all day long, said Josh Brooks. Its like the universal language of love. Theyre constantly playing with dolls, or playing freeze-tag, or hide and seek. Its not as much of a challenge with a 7-year-old, I guess.
Dasha is such a smart girl, said Amanda Brooks. She can play Monopoly and Candyland. Shes very good at Memory.
Jeremy and Allison Williams have seen a similar bonding process happen between 9-year-old Masha and their three daughters. Like the Brooks family, this is their first year in the program, but theyre also considering the possibility of taking in a Belarusian child for a second summer.
She only had three cavities, so it wasnt as bad, said Allison Williams. Shed only been to the dentist once in her life, before she started school. Overall, shes adjusted really well. Her first couple of days here, I think she might have been a little scared, but now she loves to play outside. She lives in a two-room apartment on the eighth floor of a building, so theres not a lot of opportunities for her to do that back home, but here, she can hike and go camping and just run around our backyard.
Like the Brooks family, the Williams family considers this program a convenient means of conducting outreaches from the comfort of their own homes.
Josh and I both grew up doing mission and community work, said Jeremy Williams. With our girls, though we cant necessarily travel like we used to, but this gives us an opportunity to access the world and appreciate all the differences in its people. Its culturally enriching, not just for Masha, but for us as well.
Its neat, in the sense that its made out world a little smaller, said Amanda Brooks. Places like Belarus seem so far away, until this little person from there comes into our home. There are a lot of wonderful people in this world, with a lot of similarities.