By Matthew Strader, Enterprise Staff
Jennifer Hopson and Alex Damaratskaya in Belarus in 2010
Caledon women ask community to help Belarusian orphans this Christmas
Caledon residents Jennifer Hopson and Brenda Alderdice are appealing to their friends, colleagues and neighbours to send a little holiday cheer more than 7,000 kilometres away this Christmas.
They're asking the people of Caledon to help the victims of one of the largest man-made disasters in history, and support an annual aid mission to Belarus that was created in and has continued since 1998.
Canadian Aid for Chernobyl (CAC), a charitable organization begun by David Shaw of Brockville, Ontario, has been delivering humanitarian aid such as food parcels, medical supplies, clothes, fire trucks and much more through the generosity of Canadians to impoverished families in Belarus. The people there are victims of the ongoing effects of the Chernobyl disaster.
The effects of radioactive pollutants, according to the Caledon women, have destroyed the lives of families in Belarus, and doomed nearly 100,000 children to live on in impoverished orphanages. They are there because they lose family members to premature death due to radiation. Others come as a result of the abuse of substance abusing family members, and some, simply because their families cannot afford to support them.
The year 2011 will mark the 25th anniversary of the disaster, and has these two Caledon women pushing for a greater involvement from their community.
Hopson first learned of the plight of these Belarusian people and Shaw's work in 2003 in Palgrave. "The owner of Leisure Time RV Park brought a family that was hosting young teenaged children from Belarus to the Palgrave Rotary meeting. They were visiting Canada through a summer respite program of the Canadian Aid for Chernobyl. They were orphans whose dad had died of cancer, and whose mother had committed suicide after their father's death," she described. "They were bright kids, loving kids. Then you hear the stories of how they live, and you want to get involved."
Hopson describes seeing a presentation from Shaw as an emotional ride that takes you from some of the hardest living conditions she could possibly describe -17 per cent of the orphans commit suicide, 38 per cent go to jail for stealing food or other crimes, and a large portion of girls turn to prostitution to survive - to rewards of giving she didn't know were possible. "The people are unbelievably appreciative and even the elderly will offer you an apple or small token to show their indebtedness," she said.
Alderdice got her dose of Shaw just one month ago, as she too has recently become a regular at Caledon Rotary functions.
"It changed my perspective," she said. "It makes you want to get involved right away, to do whatever you can. David (Shaw) has already done so much, and he's such a phenomenal person, but you immediately feel if there is anything you can do for these kids, you'll do it. I want to help."
Hopson, who is an official delegate for Canadian Aid for Chernobyl, has made the trip with Canadian volunteers to Belarus for the last four years, and the trips, she said, have changed her life. "Being exposed to the way these people are living, the conditions they're in is a really emotional trip," she said, describing tiny, mold infested apartments, washrooms with no working facilities, and children without the proper food, clothing or opportunities. "Seeing a young mother with seven children, some of who are from a deceased relative, and bringing food parcels to them is an unforgettable experience. You get tears in your eyes together, and you leave with tears in your eyes."
Hopson said the little ways in which she has seen the differences made are what keeps her going. She described a young Belarusian man who received cross-country skis as a donation who is now travelling to Russia to train for an Olympic team. She said the skates, sticks and hockey equipment that are a popular part of the Canadian donations are giving young kids the opportunity to excel in the sport and win medals and championships in the Mogilev region of Belarus. "They have all the ability to be anything they want, but without our help, these kids don't have the opportunity," said Hopson.
This year the women are asking Caledon residents to put together charitable shoeboxes. An activity, they believe, families can perform with their children over the holidays, and in so doing, teach their children about giving to those in need.
The shoeboxes can be filled with personal hygiene products, school supplies, toys, and anything else that would fit, and help boys or girls of ages five to 15.
They are hoping for 140, and already have the Caledon Seniors Centre involved, with seniors making as many as they can over the holiday season.
The shoeboxes can be dropped off to Steve at Business Errands, who is aiding the cause by collecting them. The boxes need to be completed by February 14, as they will be taken to Brockville for packing. They will then be shipped from Montreal and will arrive in Belarus in March to be met by the Canadian volunteers.
They are also accepting cash donations for three specific projects.
A Chicken barn for the Chausy Orphanage is the focus of this year's work. The women need to collect $10,000. The Palgrave Rotary has already raised $4,500, and that money has been sent, so they are seeking $5,500 more from the community.
Any more money donations will go to the 700 food parcels they hope to put together this year, toothpaste, toothbrushes and hygiene products, support for the Orphan Education Fund (31 students are currently sponsored by Canadian Families), and the Guardian Angel Program, that sponsors children with disabilities.
Interested donors can sponsor specifically to the Orphan Education Fund - and the Guardian Angel Program - and will be kept in touch with their sponsored child.
The women are working together to have local schools and organizations participate in loonie drives and a 5 km walk in April to mark the 25th anniversary of the disaster. The Toby Jug on Allan Drive will dedicate its Sunday night Jazz at the Jug throughout January to the cause by raffling prizes.
The deadline for donations is February 28, and they can be made to:
Canadian Aid for Chernobyl, 314 Queen St. S. Suite 131, Bolton, ON, L7E 4Z9, or by contacting Alderdice directly at (647) 827-2175, or dropping off a cheque to Business Errands (across from the Dollarama).
Canadian Aid for Chernobyl is a nationally registered charity that contributes less than two per cent of donations to administration fees, and will offer a tax receipt for donations of $20 or more. They can be visited on the web at: www.canadianaidforchernobyl.com.