We are Linda and Tony Baldwin and have been the Coordinators of Friends of Chernobyl’s Children – Medway, since January 2015.
We originally joined the charity by agreeing to host a little girl called Nastya whom we very soon fell in love with. She became our Belarusian granddaughter! Just a couple of years later we found that the Medway group was in danger of closing. So with much support from the chair of Trustees and some of the original hosts, Tony and I stepped into the breech! It was January and sixth months later the group of 10 were due to arrive!
A steep learning curve followed! Tony and I are a team and subsequently split the Coordinators job into two. We both have organisational skills. Tony took on all the forms and paperwork and I learnt to put a programme together for the four weeks that the children are here in the UK. Tony got to grips with DBS forms, the rules and regulations of the charity and much more necessary but often mundane stuff. The hardest thing for me was asking companies to host our children for a day, for a very discounted price or even better, free. The coffers were very low!
Another major aspect of the job was to organise and arrange events to raise much needed funds so that we could continue to bring these children for the necessary respite from the ongoing effects of contamination from the Chernobyl Disaster.
Well the 2015 visit happened, our first year! The children duly arrived. We collected them all at Gatwick and delivered them to their respective host families. As I recollect, it all went well. The programme was a success. Tony was our only minibus driver and we were at every activity on each day but we survived! Within a month of the children returning to Belarus, with their suitcases full of warm clothing, toothbrushes, toothpaste, instant coffee, paracetamol, vegetable seeds and much, much more, for their family’s and siblings, we started the preparation process all over again, ready for 2016!
During the Autumn of 2015, we were privileged to visit Belarus. We wanted to increase the group to 12 as funds had improved due to many fundraising activities. So we filled very large suitcases with many supplies to give out to the families we were to visit and off we went to Belarus along with Sheila Nash from the Mid- Sussex group, who was able to guide us through our visit. We hired a car and driver there as the families we try to help live in extremely rural areas of the country, of two or three hours drive away from The town of Mogilev, where we were staying. We had also arranged an interpreter to accompany us, who had a list of names and addresses of children to visit. Although we had seen many photos of the situation in Belarus, we soon became aware of just how difficult their lives were. We found many families lived and slept in one or two rooms. Often, no heating, no running water, maybe a hole in the ground for a toilet. Bare floor boards, no warm bedding, no toys for the children and most importantly little or no food in the fridge. Apart from this we soon realised that we had far more children that we wanted to bring….in fact each one that we visited! We came home emotionally wrecked and then trawled through the forms and notes that we’d completed to try to choose which children to prioritise and bring for the next visit to the UK! Details of the ones that were not chosen by our group were then sent to a central point, where they may be chosen by other groups that may want to add to the number of children in their group. The children usually visit the uk for four consecutive years.
In 2016, eight of our group were in fourth and last year. It was a very emotional time for both the children and their host family’s. Good relationships have been made during each visit and they often continue on after the visits have ended. There is also the opportunity to bring your host child on a private visit for Christmas or the Summer. We had the difficult job of choosing another eight children and trying to recruit eight new families to host them. We actually brought ten new ones for 2016 which made our group up to thirteen.
The year 2017 was a very memorable one for various reasons. We had ten new children who were not the best behaved when together each day. Fortunately they were fine at home for their host family’s! We also had a child arrive who developed Chickenpox, a couple of days in…..and a slight panic that if the others developed this too they would not be able to travel home on the designated flight! As Christians we prayed a great deal for this group and all the difficulties and praise God for all the answered prayer. One amazing thing, apart from just a single child having Chickenpox and recovering within a week, we had an energetic and talented full time helper, Michael Pearce, join us for the whole month, courtesy of John Lewis and their Golden Jubilee programme. He was such a blessing. So we survived another year….and decided to increase our group again for the next year to fifteen. That was our absolute maximum for 2018!
Raising funds throughout the year enables us to provide more for our group. Each child had a T-shirt and hoody with our logo, especially for trips out. Primarily this was to help us to visually know where each child was but it also raised awareness and interest in the charity from people wanting to know who we were. Our newly recruited host families have been supportive and more involved with the daily running of the group,
both during the visit and throughout the planning and fundraising events. Which Tony and I have really appreciated.
In 2018 we were not expecting to host a child ourselves. Nastya had completed five years with us. Unforeseen circumstances meant that we took on a little boy, Artiom, whose host family were unable to have him stay with them again. We thoroughly enjoyed this experience especially as we were used to boys in our family. He kept us very busy, riding bikes with him in the field and playing football, he also loves board games.
In 2019 we were able to bring a total of 16 children. This was our new maximum number of children. This year was an exceptional year. Lots of fun activities including one night camping in pop up tents in a huge old barn. The children loved it so we will ensure it is included in our future programmes.
Late in 2019 we became aware that we needed much more help in lots of ways. Michael Coveney volunteered to update our paperwork and Governance Document and has generally moved the Medway group forward.
2020 for our group started amazingly well with people contacting me wishing to provide days out and wonderful activities for our children’s visit later in the year. Usually it takes a couple of months of phone calls and emails for me to arrange the activities or each years visit. So with everything in place for this years visit at the beginning of March we then proceeded to cancel everything because of COVID-19 as the UK entered lockdown and the Belarusian Government stopped all children on the programme leaving Belarus. Such a sad a difficult time for everyone and especially the children who had to be told that the UK visit was cancelled.
We hope to bring the children again next year
Each year brings its own challenges. Finding new host families for the children and for our two interpreters. Fundraising is constantly an important factor and also keeping the profile raised of Friends of Chernobyl’s Children (Medway). Which we do with our Facebook Page, and our now updated website. I hope you understand who we are, now and what we do. We are passionate about our charity and the work that is involved. An important fact is we are all volunteers. The charity has no paid workers nor the upkeep of any offices. All money raised goes to the children and the families of Belarus. If you’d like to help in any please contact Linda 07834244778 or email firstname.lastname@example.org