Tuesday 21 May 2019

'They’re our summer family' - Irish mum on how hosting Chernobyl teenagers has enriched her family’s life

Betty Cunningham (57) reflects on how hosting teenagers from the stricken region each summer has enriched her own family’s life

Betty Cunningham at her home in Buncrana, Co. Donegal. Photo: Lorcan Doherty
Betty Cunningham at her home in Buncrana, Co. Donegal. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

Betty Cunningham

I saw an article in the local paper about 10 years ago looking for host families for children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. That put it on my radar. I was working with Bank of Ireland at the time and I didn’t think it would fit in with my job. But then I went to an information meeting held by the local branch of Chernobyl Children International. I remember being told that for every four weeks a child would spend in Ireland, it would add two years to their lifespan.

I live in Buncrana, Co Donegal and I heard about the benefits of fresh food and fresh air and all the health advantages to kids coming here from contaminated areas. I was immediately on board.

It’s recommended that you take two children for the four weeks. From all my experience now, I would definitely tell people to take two. A child can be as young as eight or nine and it might be their first time away from home. If they have someone around their own age who they can speak to, it can help.

My husband Paddy and I started to prepare for it ourselves. Our own kids were small at the time. We felt it was an opportunity to give something back. We had a comfortable family home and we felt it would be good for our children Anton (17), Andrea (12) and Adam (9) to realise there are people less well off.

In 2011 we got two girls from Belarus. Dasha and Vika were aged seven and eight when they came to us that first summer. Vika had come from a foster home. The girls would slot in with our everyday life. They loved Buncrana and going to the shopping centre in nearby Derry City. They came back to us a second year. The year after that we took in two boys from Belarus. That was 2013 and Vlad, now 15, and Zhenya, now 14, have been coming to us since. Vlad’s sister had been coming to Ireland for a few years so he was a bit more relaxed about it. Zhenya was very nervous and timid at first.

You get to know a bit about their home circumstances. Both live with their families and they’ve no medical issues. They would never have met before they came here. They’re good friends now, although they only meet up again on the plane coming over to Ireland.

The boys slot into life here the same as our own family. You try to figure out what they like for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They love chicken dinners and spuds and gravy, but they’re a bit like our own kids when it comes to vegetables. When they first came over they had a room of their own. Now they share with my youngest son Adam. He loves sharing with them and I’d hear them all laughing and giggling at night. I might tell them to stop messing and they try and mimic the Irish accent.

The first time they came, they’d never seen the sea. I remember one evening it was cool but they wanted to go to the beach. Vlad and Zhenya were so enthusiastic they put their swimming togs on and ran in even though it was cold. They were going to get in come hell or high water, whereas my own three knew how cold it was. In the evenings, they’re up in the green on the estate playing football with other kids. They love a bit of PlayStation — the same as any other kids. My oldest son is a typical teenager — he wouldn’t be out playing with them now. Even though Vlad and Zhenya are teenagers themselves, they’re a little bit more innocent than Irish kids. They’ll still run around and play hide and seek with my two younger children.

When you don’t see them for a year, they grow so much. I really noticed it this year — they had both filled out. I probably noticed it more because Zhenya is taller than me now.  I’ve never had one ounce of trouble with the two boys. They’re just great boys. As a mother, when they’re leaving, it’s tough seeing them go. When you know you’re going to see them again and it’s not even a year down the road, it’s easier.

Every year it just seems to come around faster and faster. There is a cut-off point. Once they reach 18, they don’t come anymore. I don’t even think about that. They’re our summer family and our family just expands when they’re here. It might be a bit like having cousins to stay except they’re more than cousins to my kids. They’re like my own children now. They would always have given me a hug at night, but they’ve gone a bit big for that now. 

The language has never been an issue. We got a phrasebook. Everything you might need to know is in the book, from words for the bathroom and sitting room to asking “are you hungry?”. Kids are very adaptable. They pick up words very quickly and the boys speak a good bit of English now. They could hold a conversation with you, no problem. I haven’t used the phrasebook in years.

There’s a real feel-good factor about doing this. It’s the opportunity to be able to help somebody. I don’t want to make it sound like “we’re great” but to give kids an opportunity is what it’s all about. It doesn’t take much to give them this chance. They fit in with whatever’s going on and go swimming with my kids. The children in the neighbourhood would be calling, asking: “Are Vlad and Zhenya coming out to play?” They’re like part of the family. The biggest thing is to carry on as normal. You don’t have to go overboard. Just start as you mean to go on like you would with your own kids. You don’t have to have children yourself to be a host family.

You can be a single person. But it’s not for everybody. We’ve had people come on board and it doesn’t work out for them — it’s not what they expect. We’ve been really lucky with our two boys. They’re just lovely, well-mannered kids.

Vlad wants to do something with computers and go to college — his sister is now in college. Zhenya doesn’t talk much about school and doesn’t know what he wants to do yet. In time, when they get older and get jobs, I do think they’ll come back and visit. This has been a big part of their lives.

If you’re someone who might be interested in hosting kids, you just need to ask yourself can I give the time to take children into my home? Time is all you really need. You can have problems, but it’s nothing that can’t be solved. It’s a great chance for the boys, but it’s hard to let them go.

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In conversation with Kathy Donaghy.

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