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Looking after a child of Chernobyl

Julie Beasley, a Supervising Social Worker in our West Country fostering team recently took a ‘busman’s holiday’ to look after a 9-year-old girl from Chernobyl – the region of Russia devastated by a nuclear disaster in 1986.  Julie and her partner Gary cared for her as if she was their own child. Julie shares her life-enhancing experiences:

What gave you the idea to look after Veranika?

We had already hosted a girl called Yana in 2017. It was such a positive experience for us that we decided we would volunteer to do it again for the charity Chernobyl Children’s Life Line. Like last year,  Five Rivers agreed to let me have a whole month off work to do this. I am grateful to them for their support. Even though it was more exhausting than my usual job, it was well worth it for the insight it gives me into looking after someone else’s child.     

How did you prepare for her stay?

Gary and I went shopping for things to welcome her when she arrived – clothes, trainers, toys and things to make her room look nice. We loved choosing little girlie treats of perfume, a unicorn fleece blanket, a kitty bag and some sparkly hair bits and bobs. The first night all we could do was tuck her up because she was exhausted from her long journey but the next day we were delighted to be told by the interpreter that Veranika had said it was the most beautiful room she had ever been in. Truly, it brought tears to my eyes!

What is the most rewarding aspect of looking after a Child of Chernobyl?

We were impressed by how brave all these young children and their families are – there is no way that I would have travelled abroad alone when I was 9, but it shows how desperate their parents are to give them the opportunity to have a fun and health-boosting time away from the difficulties the nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl disaster has left them with.

It was fantastic to see Veranika enjoy the seaside area we live in. When we walked around the harbour she wanted her photo taken by all the attractions:  the spooky pirate shop sign, the parrot pirate, the cow eating ice cream, the fisherman holding a fish. Veronika loved nature – she would pick daisies, making posies of flowers for me, collect conkers, leaves, fir cones and would make me and Gary pose for photos with leaves in our hair – like elves. On the beach she enjoyed collecting shells, even bringing home some live mussels! Frequently we would hear a “WOW!” when we came into sight of the sea. She hadn’t seen it before she came to us and probably won’t see it again for some time.

What will you remember about your time with Veranika?

I could go on and on but I think the most beautiful moments were when we played with her, communicating with each other through charades.  I have a lovely video clip of Gary being a shopkeeper and Veranika the customer – Gary saying ‘ping’ each time he swiped an item through the pretend till. I bonded with her singing and dancing along to Mary Poppins. (I think she fell in love with the show when we saw it performed with one of the hosts’ children in it)  On her last night we brought the film for her to watch. She loved it – dancing around the living room with my flamingo umbrella and yes, I joined in.

What do you think Veranika will remember about England?  

When I showed her some Red Leicester cheese she said in a puzzled tone,  “Orange cheese?” then, when she tasted it, “Yumma! Yumma!”  From then on Red Leicester had to be on the menu every day. When we were leaving Penzance to take her home I heard her say,  “Goodbye Julie, goodbye Gary, goodbye sea, goodbye Mary Poppins, goodbye Red Leicester”

What have you learned from this experience?

It’s humbling when you think about our world and expectations we have of it compared to others: life is not fair for the families who live around Chernobyl continuing day by day despite the contamination around them. Veranika came from a very poor village  – her clothes were too small. We let her choose clothes when shopping but she didn’t understand that the clothes were hers to keep. When we showed her the holdalls we had bought for her to take back stuff to Belarus she asked “Belarus clothes?“ to which I said “Veranika’s clothes!” She gave me such a lovely smile.

Successful fostering is down to the parenting skills of the foster carers. Did you find you were able to put into practice some of the therapeutic techniques we use at Five Rivers?  

I think so!  For example, on her paperwork, she was described as ‘stubborn and disobedient’ – we did not see it that way at all. What we saw was Veranika being creative in finding ways to extend an activity she was enjoying – like being in the bath too long. Instead of confronting her directly we used creative play and mime to work out the situation, finding ways to resolve it without it becoming a fight. Some people might say that creative bit in her play was stubborn, we would say it was clever.

I heard these words recently,  “Enjoy life, don’t endure it and it made me think of Veranika, and how she would stand in front of a view she liked.  If we asked her to turn around so we could take a photo or get moving, there would be a short, sharp ‘No!” which sounded rude but it was her telling us loud and clear to allow her to enjoy the view. Why should we rush along, after all, isn’t admiring a view a good way to spend time?  

We thank Julie for this revealing story which shows how looking after children can deliver huge rewards to people with open hearts and minds. If you have been touched by this story why not find out if you have the heart to be a foster carer? We are recruiting people from all walks of life; married, partnered or single, with or without children. Find out more: Five Rivers Independent Fostering Service

The charity Chernobyl Children’s Life Line.


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