Rose of Tralee's mission of hope to children of Chernobyl
Charmaine witnesses Irish charity's work in Belarus
ALL he can do is cradle her and hope she is not in pain.
Sasha's suffering has gone on every day of her 15-year-old life, but father Vitaly is adamant she will never be sent to an asylum.
Her struggle is part of the terrible legacy of the April 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, which left a generation of children battling terminal cancers and other crippling diseases.
Teenager Sasha suffers from hydrocephalus -- an excess of fluid in the brain. It is gradually enlarging her skull and will eventually kill her. She needs 24-hour care.
The primitive conditions around Sasha will almost certainly accelerate a rapid and probably fatal deterioration in her health.
Living with his family in their tiny flat in the Belarusian town of Gomel, Vitaly explains to Chernobyl Childrens' Project International (CCPI) ambassador and Rose of Tralee winner, Charmaine Kenny, how he copes.
Vitaly cares for Sasha all day. But at night, he must go to his work as a security watchman. Ms Kenny was in Belarus last week with CCPI founder and campaigner Adi Roche to visit mental asylums, hospitals, private homes, orphanages and foster homes all linked to the children of Chernobyl. Some of what she saw shocked her. But some of the sights gave her hope.
"What was especially harrowing was that the asylums are literally built on roads to nowhere -- where people do not realise or acknowledge their existence," she said.
"Even calling these institutions mental asylums is harrowing. The children have hydrocephalus with enlarged heads, limp arms and legs, cleft palates and other serious medical problems."
Last year's Rose of Tralee winner said many Irish people associated the image of Chernobyl children with happy Christmas visits to Ireland, but support is needed all year.
Ms Kenny made the trip with Ms Roche and a team of CCPI volunteers.
"I had no real sense of the impact Chernobyl has had on the people of Belarus until I went there," she said.
The group visited Vesnova Children's Mental Asylum, which is home to over 140 children with various forms of physical and mental disability.
CCPI has supplied humanitarian and medical aid to Vesnova for eight years. With a team of Irish builders, the CCPI refurbished the building to improve living conditions. Medical and nursing teams visit the home every month.
They also travelled to a so-called 'Home of Hope' in the town of Glusk, which is sponsored by Irish woman Norma Smurfit.
It is one of 21 such homes that provide a family life for previously institutionalised children.
There she met Dasha (5) and Larisa (6), who tried on her tiara. "The children were happy and in a nice place thanks to the work of many Irish people," said Ms Kenny.
The Home of Hope programme has placed 10 abandoned or orphaned children into small foster homes.
"As children best thrive in a home environment, CCPI will continue to invest in this programme and help children who have spent their childhood in orphanages, refuges and institutions," said a spokesman for the charity.
Commenting on the latest trip to Belarus, Adi Roche welcomed the involvement of the Rose of Tralee winner and added: "Charmaine truly embraced the spirit of our work in what were very difficult conditions.
"We feel very privileged that the Rose of Tralee Festival has chosen CCPI as their charity partner this year."
The Chernobyl Children's Project International was established by Ms Roche in 1991 to improve the quality of life of thousands of children and their communities.
This year marks the 24th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, on the April 26, 1986 -- affecting the health of at least seven million people. CCPI has delivered over €80m worth of aid and brought over 19,000 children into Ireland on rest and recuperation trips.