Marin IJ article about CCP

Marin, Sonoma families host Chernobyl kids

Becca MacLaren
Posted: 06/30/2007 11:15:10 PM PDT

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Carolyn Lacerra of Petaluma helps Katya Bukareva, 9, of Belarus play with... (IJ photo/Alan Dep)
TWO WEEKS ago, a group of Belarusian children arrived in California for six weeks of fun with host families in Marin and Sonoma.
For the children, who hail from regions affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, it's also an opportunity to strengthen their immune systems with fresh air and clean food and water.

The Chernobyl Children's Project was founded in 1991 by Connie and Cliff McClain. The Petaluma couple saw suffering on a visit to the Soviet Union and, inspired by similar respite programs in Europe, brought over the first group of 10 children.

This year, five of the 28 host families live in Marin.

"She's basically a part of our family," said Robyn Mason of 11-year-old Tanya. "When she's not here, it feels like there's something missing. When she arrives, we feel whole again."

Mason, her husband, Dave, and their three daughters - an 11-year-old and 6-year-old twins - say they have benefited tremendously from their three summers with Tanya.

"My family has received just as much from her being here as she has," said Mason, a Novato resident. "It's win-win all the way around."

This summer, they plan to go camping, make frequent trips to the beach and to the farmers market where Tanya can pick out the fruits and vegetables that look interesting to her.

For many Belarusian children, a summer in Marin is filled with new experiences.

"These children don't have access to the simple things you take for granted," said Rosey Erickson.

Erickson, a

Petaluma resident and host family coordinator of the Chernobyl project, brought 11-year-old Tanya over for her third summer.
On their first meeting at the airport, Erickson felt a deep connection to the little girl who didn't speak English.

"I had goose bumps all over my body," she said. "It was one of the most magical moments in my entire life watching that scared little child smile up at us."

Tanya transformed over the course of six weeks from pale and timid to healthy and vibrant.

Though the children are not sick, "they don't look healthy and robust like our children," Erickson said.

An estimated three million people, including one million children, are suffering from radioactive fallout from the 1986 nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Spending six weeks in the clean air of Marin and Sonoma rids the children of 80 percent of the toxins that build up in their bodies throughout the year, said Erickson.

Tatiana Saniuk, a 20-year-old who lives in Novato with her longtime host family, remembers how she benefited after a summer in Marin.

"I didn't get sick back at home," she said. "This is so much cleaner. The food, air and water are not contaminated."

Saniuk considers herself lucky to have met the Wilson family back in 1997. She spent five summers with them until, at 17, she was too old to participate in the Chernobyl Children's Project.

Eager to bring her host daughter back, Meg Wilson sought assistance in acquiring her a student visa. In 2004, she came back for college.

"For me, coming here to live was like starting a second life," Saniuk said.

Being in a new environment broadened her perspective.

"At home, you see only one way of life," she said. "You assume that all over the place, people live the same way."

The Wilson family says having her has been similarly transformative.

"We tend to take so much for granted here," Wilson said. "To have someone who grew up so differently - it's really an eye-opener for how much we have and how much need there is in the world."

Erickson agrees. "Tanya's family of four shares one room with no plumbing about the size of my daughter's bedroom," she said. Through Tanya, her children have "learned so much about generosity and sharing - about how much Americans have."

When Tanya's sister turns 8, she'll come to California.

Read more Novato stories at the IJ's Novato page.
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