Profile by Danielle Harney
Imagine growing up without adequate, hygienic bathroom facilities. That was the reality for 140 children living in an orphanage in Belarus, until the Athlone Chernobyl Aid Project (ACAP) decided to help them.
Last month, 28 volunteers travelled to Karolina Orphanage to complete a project that began a decade ago when the charity first shipped out new toilets. The children had little more than a slatted shed for a toilet and used to wash using a hose outdoors. Now, after hard work and lots of fundraising, the orphanage has boys and girls toilets, wheelchair accessible toilets, a shower room/changing room and a drying room. Volunteers also installed smaller, PVC windows in the school gym to improve the building's insulation.
Chairman of the Athlone Chernobyl Aid Project (ACAP) Martin Reilly said the trip was a great success.
"It was our 11th trip and most of the volunteers have been over before, they usually go when they can," said Martin. "The majority of the volunteers are tradesmen and are at the top of their trades, we have plumbers, labourers and engineers."
The first group of volunteers travelled over in August and spent two weeks carrying out the first fix plumbing, pulling up the floors and laying the foundations. Locals were paid to work with them. The second group set off on Monday September 6. They continued the building work, installed the fixtures and only left when the job was finished.
"The orphanage has a new director Melia Guman, she's taken over and we've a fantastic relationship with her. The kids love her as well, they're getting a nice, balanced diet, they're very happy," added Martin. "We've a great rapport with the people there."
PRO Billy Duffy said that the conditions at some orphanages and schools were terrible but that Karolina had improved immensely over the last decade.
"It really opens your eyes. They have very little. But the orphanage also grows its own food, the kids and teachers all help out. They have a small farm with pigs and cows," he added. "The basic needs of the children are looked after."
Martin said that the orphanage is the main source of employment in the village, with around 100 staff consisting of teachers, cleaners and gardeners all working for basic wages. Most of the children and teens in the orphanage were abandoned by their parents, who were unemployed, living in poverty and often addicted to alcohol. The children attend school, but once they near 18, they learn how to live independently and practise living on a budget. Despite the improvements in facilities for staff and children in all of the four orphanages - perhaps the main secret to the local charity's success is how it's run.
"You have to do it right," said Martin. Billy agreed. "That's the key to it. The core value of the group is that we're well organised," he said. "We have a construction team and each trade is represented on that team. We have one basic team leader who scopes each aspect of the job. We meet regular enough to plan our trip."
Both men also praised their fundraising team for their "great efforts" in raising money. This year, a total of ?35,000 was raised, mostly from the annual spring draw, which paid for the job at Karolina. Martin acknowledged that money was tighter now in Ireland, but pointed out that Belarus is in a permanant recession, reliant on outside help. Billy and Martin pride themselves on ensuring that every cent raised in Athlone and the greater Midlands area is spent entirely on the projects in Belarus.
They deal directly with the orphanage directors, discussing plans for construction in great detail, and use their contact in Minsk, Sergi Pyshny who himself spent time in Athlone on work experience and now runs his own business, to order materials. They can trust these people and they know that all funds are being spent wisely.
Martin wanted to thank all the volunteers from Athlone, Ballinasloe, Ferbane and Shannonbridge, for their efforts this year and also thanked everyone who supported ACAP so well.
"We can't thank people enough for their genorisity every year. We have to keep going back to the same pot so we do appreciate it," added Billy.
The big draw will take place again next spring, but in the meantime over the next few weeks, ACAP will launch a 2011 calendar, which will be on sale along with two packs of Christmas cards, for ?10.
There's still a lot of work to be done and Athlone Chernobyl Aid Project certainly has the ambition and the passion to carry it out; little by little, year by year.