We make a living by what we get,
but we make a life
by what we give

Winston Churchill

A new volunteer group

A new volunteer group

Balancing Families

The return to Gorodische (for the third trip in 2018) was initially planned many months earlier. There was a partly selfish reason for this visit, a major event to celebrate with our “heart adopted” daughter Tanya. But returning at this time of the years took some more consideration than the previous trips – we would be leaving our three boys at home at a time of year that is generally considered as family time – but it now feels like we are balancing two families. It would be Joanne and I, travelling over late Christmas/New Year to spend one more valuable week with our family in Belarus. An initial mention of the trip to the wider group of volunteers at a truck loading day in Ennistymon started a buzz of excitement and potential numbers went from two to four to more, I didn’t expect in the early planning days that we would be a band of 9, three over Christmas and six others joining for the New Year celebrations. This would surely be a trip to remember – not that each isn’t – but this was at the most magical time of the year. Rosie, Ruth, and Kate (who had been in Gorodishche from before Christmas) were about to be joined by Claire, Gary, Laura, Rosie Eile, Joanne, and I – are we completely mad or what? (answers on a postcard please).

It was coming up to Christmas, so thoughts of the trip were given a back seat while we prepared for the big day, we also opted to not run a fundraising event this time – people would surely have seen enough of our faces this year. Instead, in early December, we held a thanksgiving event – mulled wine and mince pies to thank everyone who has been part of our Belarus adventure. Donations of hats, gloves, scarfs, socks, pyjamas, etc. poured in as the mulled wine poured out and at the end of the day we have more than a suitcase of goodies to pack for the trip. We have such an incredible and generous community here in Shannon and beyond – we are truly blessed.

Bags packed to capacity, special gifts wrapped appropriately, we were off to Belarus to celebrate our girl becoming a woman – Tanya was about to turn 18.

The ones that got there first

The ones that got there first

We arrive at the orphanage to hear of a feast that was had on Christmas Day by Rosie, Ruth, and Kate. Not content with the usual Christmas dinner of noodles, Kate had decided to bring steak for the three who were the vanguard of this winter trip. The luxurious meals were to continue for the duration of the trip with Kate producing salmon and chicken from her bags in the following days.

Happy Birthday Iryna

Parties are such a big part of our visits; they’re not celebrated just because the Irish are in town. But I expect that all of the parties that have Irish participation take on a whole new meaning and level of hype and excitement, on this trip there are five separate birthdays, young and old (when I say old - that’s Alla I’m referring to of course, your secret is safe with me Iryna). The first of these is particularly significant – Iryna (the living saint of Gorodishche) is celebrating and she chose to come to work for the day to be sure she can celebrate with her Irish friends.

On Saturday morning, Iryna and some other ladies from the orphanage left us in the Groups in order to go and prepare for her party (a local custom where the person who is celebrating does all of the preparations – Belarus can keep that custom). We arrive to the small kitchen to what can only be described as a fullon banquet, fittingly as we celebrate with a queen! There’s more chicken (3 varieties) and spuds (they are big potato eaters here) that a group twice our size would be able to consume, but this is the season of overindulgence!

A little local “juice” to wash the food down and them some birthday wishes to Iryna from all in attendance (and lots of gifts). Iryna tells us that she is past retirement age in Belarus but speaks of being happy that she is kept busy in Gorodishche. “If I were retired, I would simply spend my time sitting around with a bunch of old women, gossiping” she tells us. She has no thoughts of retirement, and Gorodishche is happy about this (as are all of the volunteers that she selflessly helps each year). A beautifully written poem, in homage to Iryna, is read and presented – a most beautiful moment and I’m very happy to say; “I was there”.

Iryna declares this her best birthday party ever, and I believe her. Not because I want (or need) to be part of a “best ever” but it is clear that Iryna is with those that she values most in this environment – her closest work colleagues and a handful of Irish volunteers. She will celebrate with her family later, and share what we, the Irish, think of our friend.

As she brought up the subject – I dare to think of a Gorodishche without the wonderful Iryna. I know that when we leave, Iryna keeps Ireland alive in the hearts and minds of all in Gorodishche; and that all of our friends have a beautiful Irish mammy to take care of them, until we can return.

The Spice Girls

All through the Summer there has been talk, all across the world, of a Spice Girl reunion. Could my favourite band of the nineties really be making a comeback! However, there is also talk that the band (if that’s what you call them) is down to three members now – Posh Spice won’t be part of the tour. For the band, I’m not sure that this is such bad news.

Spice Girls (minus 1)

Spice Girls (minus 1)

Within our first hours of the trip, news came filtering through - I can confirm this to be the truth, having travelled all the way to Gorodishche, we are officially missing a Spice Girl!

Tanya, Lida, Vasselina, and Nastia have been the inseparable team that I affectionately call the Spice Girls – most events in the orphanage sees the four girls parked up in the wheelchairs sideby-side, mostly waiting to be taken out on to the dance floor. But news of this split in the band is not sad or bad, in fact this is fantastic news. Vasselina is not in the orphanage for Christmas or New Year, she is spending this time at home with her family. We are seeing a little more of this (families) and it is great news for most! It’s clear from Laura’s reaction to this news that her “special one” might not be here for her visit ☹

On mature reflection – I feel at this point that I should distance myself from the “favourite band” thing. I might have liked one or two (or maybe three) of their songs.



Joy & Innocense

If any of you reading this has teenagers (or younger these days), you will know that their most prized possession is their mobile phone. It’s a “must have” necessity. From early in the visit I have been getting persistent requests for a phone from Slava. Every time I was with his Group, I had him tugging at me with the request for his “telefon”. I hadn’t brought phones to Belarus with me and I know that he would be desperately disappointed if I could not magic one up for him. Enter the saviour of the day – Claire. Claire (who’s from Cork – now that’s confusing) had brought a few phones and one was Slava bound.

Every day of our visit there was a disco on in the hall, and on our next visit there I approached Slava and presented him with the gift. His eyes lit up and his face oozed joy, he had his own telephone. The next 20 minutes was spent going around the hall on his phone and taking photographs on it and showing these to his buddies. He even took a moment to stop and take a photo of me taking a photo of him – his face tells the story of what a simple plastic flip-top phone meant to him. This is a photo that embodies the sheer joy and unbridled innocence of our friends in Gorodishche.

Is IT Better?

Every visit we are looking to see what has changed, hopefully for the better. Every volunteer hopes that the contribution they are making is having a lasting impact (small steps forward). The independent Group is the dream for those young people that are capable of getting to a level of independent living (albeit assisted) and the absolute ideal is that these young adults might move on to apprenticeships or get a job that will allow them to move on from the orphanage. This doesn’t always work out; I know that I’ve written of Sergei in the past where it looked like he was a great news story but that didn’t really materialise (although it appears to be a little better now for him).

An offer of salo!

An offer of salo!

Independent Living

During the year; Dima and Sveta had moved from the orphanage and were setup for true independent living. The big change this time was that they were not sent away to their hometowns/area but were given an apartment just outside the gates of the orphanage (their place has become affectionately known as 2 Orphan Road). They both have jobs back in the orphanage, so they are living in close proximity (to be watched/minded) outside the orphanage. In September they will move on to do some course/apprenticeship in order to set them up to work entirely separately from the orphanage.

We visited the new apartment and Dima delighted at showing us around. It looked fantastic and he was as proud as a peacock (even offering us some salo that was sitting on the table). At first glance salo can look like hard sheep’s cheese or a smoky mozzarella. But the slabs are actually cold, white pork fat. Apparently, it is best served covered with garlic, onion and pickles and almost always washed down with a shot of vodka. Even the temptation of vodka (which of course they don’t have in the apartment) was not enough to tempt me to eat this lump of lard, I’ll stick to the pot noodles for now

Rosie Eile was in her element here. Her baby (Dima) was becoming a man – although now that I say that out loud it seems so unlikely! Dima is clever enough to know who to ask for things that are needed in the house and is thrilled with the new Bluetooth speakers that Rosie Eile has packed for him before leaving Ireland. Now if only he had a new remote control, an ariel for the tv, a shower head; and the list goes on. But isn’t that what mothers are for when their kids move out of home?

The other upside of this move is that Vanya and Veronika have now moved into the independent living quarters in the orphanage. They are now on the conveyor that might one day see them with their own apartment, living in true independence.

Our Baby is 18!

Did I tell you about our slightly selfish reason for this visit? Well I can guarantee that it was a very selfish and joyous moment – our Tanya is 18!

The love affair (and that’s what you can call this relationship with Tanya) started many years ago with Joanne’s first visit to Gorodishche. Tanya did what she does best (call it survival), she forced another Irish volunteer to become her Mama. But this Mother and Child union was a bit different! For starters, they were woven from the same cloth – they are both emotional beings that thrive on living in the present moment and who are what they are – warts (or wheelchairs) and all. Joanne moved from Mama to Mammy and as a result, I became Papa (albeit from a distance). Joanne’s love for Tanya grew over the years and it was impossible for me to not become a physical part of this wonderful relationship. Tanya met Papa in 2017 and I fully understood all that I had heard of our beautiful baby.

Plans were made some time ago to be with Tanya for her special occasion, I doubt that she could dream what 18 years olds in Ireland do to celebrate the occasion (we had just had one for Adam), but I expected that she would appreciate that she was celebrating her birthday with those that have become her family. And in Joanne style, there was to be two big events to celebrate the occasion!

The birthday girl

The birthday girl

Tanya shares a birthday with Misha; and in true Gorodishche style, they celebrated the occasion together in the hall. This was a birthday celebration to beat all, led by the amazing Ilona. Tanya was the centre of attention and was joined by all of her friends (after all, who could have enemies in Gorodishche) for an occasion that will be remembered forever in the hearts and minds of all in attendance (as I look back at the photographs I think that maybe she was proposed to and that we might soon become a mother/father in law to some unsuspecting flower bearer!).

As is normal in our house (why have one when you can have many), Tanya was to have another party to celebrate her coming of age. Later that day, in the place known as “The Irish Kitchen”, a small group gathered to share tears, laughter, song – and of course cake, as we wished our Belarusian baby “Днем рожденья” (that’s “Happy Birthday” to you and me!). And there was joy and tears aplenty as we were joined by Lida, Ruslana, and Sergei (where does he put all that food?).

To say that this occasion lived up to our expectation would be an understatement, this was a dream come through for Joanne, Tanya, and I (I really don’t know how we’ll survive the wedding!).

Proper Winter

Gorodishche in the snow is beautiful, we had experienced this on our visit earlier in the year. The temperatures were higher than I’d have expected but the snow managed to keep the ground covered for much of the visit. There is a down-side to this; we didn’t get to take any of the Groups out during this trip. The village seems to have gotten a facelift since we were last here, the shop-fronts are beginning to look like shops now (in the past you really had to know where you were going in order to be sure that the door you were opening wasn’t in to someone’s front room!). During a trip into the village for much needed supplies, I was surprised to be greeted in English by someone that was standing at the local bus stop – boy how times are changing in this far flung corner of Belarus.

We didn’t get to bring the kids out in the snow but that didn’t stop some of the “children” from playing in it (sliding down hills and building snowmen – or should that be snowpeople in this new politically correct world?). On the final morning, as we delivered tea and coffee to the mama’s in each of the Groups, Rosie Eile and Joanne, inappropriately dressed as they were, managed to get one last chance to be children. It may be some time before we get a chance to do this in Ireland.

Spot the kids!

Spot the kids!

Dima - Hard at work

Dima - Hard at work

Work To Be Done

One of the jobs that has to be done during this time of the year is keeping the walkways clear of snow, work for the boys in Group 2 and the Independents. We sat one morning watching Dima (he knew we were watching) as he made a huge job out of clearing the snow outside the Irish Kitchen. He meticulously cleared the path to a small pile outside the window and once this was done, he moved the pile to the other side of the path – talk about making work for himself! But he was happy to keep busy and to ensure that we were watching him work so very hard. If he ever gets to Ireland, there’s surely a full-time job for him in Clare County Council.

Party, party, Party

Did I tell you about the parties? And you thought that going to Gorodishche was going to be something akin to a working holiday! Every day appears to be a party day when the Irish are in town; and given the time of year – this seems to have increased the number of occasions (excuses) to have a big bash.

We visited our friends in Group 4 one of the days and Alla, who now strives to be part of the Spice Girls too, was immediately into us in the classroom. She doesn’t want to miss anything. She is practically non-verbal but that doesn’t stop her from joining us for a song or two. With her lack of speech and Joanne’s fluency in Russian we were wondering why Joanne was asking Iryna if tomorrow might be Alla’s birthday. Unlikely as this combination seems, it turns out that Alla can muster enough Russian words (that Joanne knows) to announce to the group (confirmed by Iryna after she had checked) that tomorrow was indeed Alla’s 48th birthday. Will we be celebrating this? – of course we will.

We return the next morning to find all, in the Group, dressed in their finery, party on! Alla is crowned with the party hat and all of her friends are asked to offer her birthday wishes. “I wish her health and happiness” says Tanya; “good friends” offers Ruslana. The most poetic of offerings comes from beside me – Lida speaks up “from my soul – I wish your mother good health” – it turns out that Alla’s mother is in hospital and she is upset about this. But all will be OK. She asks for Sergei to be at her side for some photographs and for all of us to sing to her in Russian and English – “Happy Birthday To You”.

During the party, Gary manages to get himself tied into a wheelchair by one of the teachers. Through roars of laughter Ruslana is heard to squeal “look, Gary invalide”, talk about a warped sense of humour!

Alla in her element

Alla in her element

There is one more birthday to be celebrated before the week is out – Natasha (sometimes too cool for school) will have a chance to be made a fuss of upstairs with her friends (and of course the Irish are invited – more presents if they are onboard!). She is delighted to be the centre of attention (for a minute or two) but is even more delighted with the vast array of gifts that she is given. She hastily retreats to her toom to try on/try out the things that are now hers to keep.

Monsters Abound!

On my first visit to Gorodishche (seems like a lifetime ago), Iryna told a story of how the people of the local village, many years ago, had a real fear of the residents of the orphanage. There were stories of children with hideous features and bent and broken bodies. She told us of exaggerated tales from the locals of children with three arms and no legs. In my many visits since then, I had not encountered people as described (in innocence and ignorance) in the local tales – that is until this trip. I had a chance encounter with . . . . . . The Three Headed Child of Belarus:

But there is a reason to recall this story that we heard of the local fears; because all of this has changed. Some of the brighter kids are now attending mainstream school in the village and there are people from local towns and villages now becoming part of a local volunteer team and visiting the orphanage with gifts and presence! So, it appears, there may be parties when the Irish are not in town!

Nastia - Looking Good

The question that I am asked upon returning each time, “well, are things getting better”. And I guess it’s the question that’s on my mind as I set out to visit each trip. The answer is YES, things are always getting better, but let’s not sugar coat the situation too much!

When I think about what “things” are getting better or worse, I always look at some of those that have become my favourites and I look to see how they are doing. Are there changes, mostly subtle, in how they look or (re)act. Are they healthier (at least outwardly) than when I last saw them – as I read this back over, I realise how hopeless a barometer this is of improvements!

Nastia is well, a significant improvement on when I left her last year. I had spoken only of her dis-improving with each visit, this was such a relief. Her medication is clearly working, she did not have a single seizure during all of the times that I spent with her. And she is being forced to sit up and feed herself in the bed, another massive step in the new regime that seems to be taking hold in the Orphanage (although I did feed her on a couple of occasions, this was as much about allowing me to spend time with her as it was with giving her a break). And does she look happy – you can be the judge of that!

She joined us in the hall for the local disco’s, but this time of year means that she (like all of the others) doesn’t get to go outdoors. Everyone looks a little paler, but her form is very good; and her health is so much better. A great news story.

Kyriel - A very special young man

Kyriel - A very special young man

Family Visits

Kyriel had a visit from his family while we were in the Orphanage, his mother, father, and sister came to spend a few hours with him in the family room. They have visited before, but it appears that the visits are more frequent. Quite bizarrely, we are told that Kyriel does not want to go home as he feels that his disabilities will bring shame on his family. He has a twin brother who doesn’t visit this time, a brother that looks quite different to our special boy. Joanne gets to meet the family (I’m really sorry that I didn’t take a moment to say what a special boy Kyriel is) and she has a very emotional encounter with Kyriel’s mother. Joanne expresses to her our view of their special boy – and there is no doubt left in that room about what Kyriel means to the visiting Irish. I ask him later that evening if he would like to live at home. He hesitates for quite some time before nodding – Yes.

I have had very regular contact with Kyriel since my last visit, he regularly calls on WhatsApp and manages to bring the mayhem of Group 4 into our world on most Sundays. Language is, of course, a barrier but we manage to get across the things that are important. Things like “my android tablet is broken, could you get it fixed in Ireland”. I understand that and can easily translate this to “any chance you could bring me a new tablet when you come next”. Sorted, thanks to a kind donation from Shannon. Now how to get his one fixed and back in the summer?

My Masha

Each new visit brings different faces and personalities into my world. Loveable rogues, playful children, and quiet reflective ones – there are more and more to remember.

From my first visit I have had a very strong connection to Masha (quiet and reflective one), a fascinating and intriguing soul (and I use those words deliberately – there’s definitely something about Masha!). I know that others are attracted to this impish looking young lady, maybe they sense that she is very special too.

Masha is a grinder and a rocker; if she was in Ireland this would be seen as cool and she would be a music loving skateboarder. But not so; Masha lives in a place that appears to be such an isolated and lonely world. Connecting with Masha is not always easy, she likes to stay alone. But when she connects; she has a smile to warm to coldest heart. In her striking yellow and bright pink, her frowns turn to smiles and . . . wow.

I get the opportunity to dance with her in the hall later in the week, but I have to stand in line as I’m not the only one that wants her to dance. When she’s good she’s very good but I often see her when she’s not that good. I wonder what goes on in her world?

Yulla the smiler

Yullya the smiler

The Bould Ones!

There are many others, too many to tell you all of their stories. But one other new friend (well new-ish) is Yullya. She is a flirter – and is she bould; oh yes she is! But she falls into the category of a loveable rogue. We met first in the snow back in March – she was the one that got me in trouble for throwing snowballs (I was innocent). Our next encounter during the Summer saw the bould side of her come out as I was on the receiving end of a rather rude gesture (I blame the Irish for teaching her).

This trip we have great fun and she spent her time looking to be chased around the Christmas tree. Such innocent fun – her squeals as I changed direction to catch her. But what a smile – the perfect picture of happiness in a world that is not always so bright and happy.

New Years Eve

It’s New Year’s Eve and we’ve been invited to the celebrations that are taking place upstairs in the Independent Group – not another party I hear you exclaim! I know that New Year’s Eve is a big celebration in Belarus, so I expect that there will be something special planned for the evening. There are rumours of needing to wear a “gúna deas” for the occasion – wherever I might find such a thing at such short notice?

Preparations are underway from early in the day and the mama’s and Independents are busy – the smells from the kitchen are wonderful. I remember that I have a shirt – phew – and we (the Irish) decide we should bring something to the event. Cheese and pineapple it is then, a staple “fancy food” from the 80’s. How embarrassing this appears beside the phenomenal treats served up to us on our arrival – WOW is all that I can say. And as for the style and fun – I’ll let these photographs tell the story: -

And yes, we did all stand to hear the President’s address to the nation and his countdown to 2019! Fireworks followed, and it really was a New Year’s Eve to beat all that came before. We dance and sing to the early hours (well 1 to be precise) the retire to the Irish Kitchen to recover.

The Practical One

Joanne was immediately attracted to Tanya because they were so alike (and they are alike in so many ways). I immediately took to Lida for the same reasons, albeit they are entirely different beings. Lida is the practical one, not so expressive but “ever the helper”. We are alike also in so many ways (but I’m glad that she didn’t get my looks!).

This trip I saw a very different Lida, a much “huggier” and emotional lady – most of the time. She spent less time on toilet duty and as such she was with the Group most of the evenings that we called in. We had some lovely time together, although there were occasions when I was only useful for my phone and the photo’s that Lida loves to look through (she especially wants to look at photos from Ireland).

And as for that photo shoot she wanted with her new jumper – not content with the initial shot, we eventually got the perfect photo at number four. But it was worth the extra poses! On the day that we were leaving – that’s always a tough day for all involved – I dropped Lida back to her room, but she disappeared to the toilet. I left and went back to the Irish Kitchen, awaiting the arrival of the transport back to Minsk.

But I hadn’t said farewell! I quickly made my way back to the room to give her a farewell hug and kiss. What a surprise – she burst into tears and clung on to me for dear life. For once it was Tanya that was the voice of calm – “Не плачь” (“don’t cry”) she called out to Lida. But it was time to go – ouch I was not expecting that.

Whos Driving?

I’ve always said that I would not travel in the front of the minibus that brings us to and from Minsk, I’m a nervous passenger – and those roads! I miscalculated the number of passengers and guess where I landed, yep you guessed it – I was in the front seat of the bus – HELP. The first 45 minutes of the journey were on packed snow, Yuri managed to keep up a good speed by steering into an out of skids – he’s either a very skilled driver in these conditions or we were very lucky (I’ll stick with the skill option). Thank God that I was tired, I slept for periods during the scary trip. We reached our destination safely, in the same time that it would have taken on a clear summer’s day – phew

Большое спасибо

Every trip brings together a group of volunteers that are both familiar and strangers to each other, this trip was no different. We met new and old friends (I know, that was a cheap slag at you Rosie) and we create such lasting memories – most of which are good. We get to live in each other’s hair (almost literally) for an intense and emotional time. Thank you all, it is what each person brings to these visits that makes for such wonderful and lasting memories – for volunteers and the children and young adults of Gorodishche. To Rosie, Ruth, Kate, Joanne, Rosie eile, Gary, Laura, and Claire – Thank You (Большое спасибо)

And last but most important - to Brother Liam and the team at Burren Chernobyl Project, without you none of this would happen. You have created a platform that allows magic to become reality. You have created opportunities for strangers to become friends. And most importantly; you have created virtual families and bonds of love, between our babies of Belarus and the mammies and daddies from Ireland. All of this = we treasure.

Here’s to 2019 and the opportunities that we look forward to - to be part of the magic and love at least one more time.

Happy New Year