The Associated Press
UNITED NATIONS: Russian-born tennis star Maria Sharapova was named a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. Development Program on Wednesday and immediately donated $100,000 (?76,440) to aid recovery from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster which touched her family.
Sharapova, 19, said her work for the poverty-fighting agency will have a special focus on helping the area affected by the world's worst nuclear accident in 1986.
"Chernobyl has a deep spot in me," said Sharapova, the world's top-ranked women's tennis player. "I still have family that's affected ... This definitely means a lot to me."
On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the electricity-generating plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, exploded during a pre-dawn test and spewed radioactive clouds over the western Soviet Union and northern Europe. The shattered reactor leaked radioactivity for 10 days and contaminated 77,220 square miles (197,683 square kilometers). The Soviet government had to permanently evacuate more than 300,000 people.
Sharapova's pregnant mother and father fled the city of Gomel in Belarus - about 80 miles (128 kilometers) north of Chernobyl - shortly before she was born in April 1987 in Siberia.
Gomel was one of the areas most affected by radiation, and Sharapova's parents were concerned about the effects of it on their unborn child. Sharapova said she still has family in Gomel, including a grandmother.
UNDP Associate Administrator Ad Melkert said Sharapova's responsible and healthy lifestyle made her an ideal role model for young people.
Sharapova's money will go to eight U.N. development projects in rural communities in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine directed at youths suffering from the effects of the nuclear accident. The projects include sports and computer facilities and hospitals.
"It means so much to me to be a part of this project because I was sort of part of it as well," she said. "I can't tell you how excited I am. I am probably more nervous right now than I am before a Grand Slam."
Thirty-one people died within the first two months of the Chernobyl disaster from illnesses caused by radioactivity, but there is heated debate over the toll that will be taken over the years. The U.N. health agency has estimated that about 9,300 people will die from cancers caused by Chernobyl's radiation. Some groups, such as Greenpeace, insist the toll could be 10 times higher.
Some 5 million people live in areas where radioactive particles fell in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
Sharapova signed a contract with the UNDP which promises to pay her a symbolic salary of $1 (?.76) per year for her two-year term. She called it "my proudest contract ever."
Sharapova said her work with the UNDP will extend to other impoverished areas as well, adding that she had always been fascinated with Africa and told the UNDP she wanted to visit.
Sharapova left Russia in 1995 and moved to the United States. She won her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2004 and won the U.S. open in 2006.