I’ve been asked to share my experiences as a Friends of Chernobyl’s Children host family in an article for a coaching newsletter.
When I started to write, it became much more than an article and I wanted to share the story here with you.
I’ve split it into two parts – this week is context and before the visit; next week I’ll share what happened during…
I was so fortunate to have a happy, secure childhood. What my parents couldn’t give my brother, sister and I in financial wealth and security, they more than made up for by providing an abundance of love, care, respect and belief. In emotional, social and intellectual terms, we were a very wealthy family indeed.
I was a late, accidental addition to the family, but my Mum always maintained my arrival created such a bond between the five of us that it unlocked new depths in her capacity to love. So, in addition to raising their own three children, my Mum and Dad began to foster newborn babies – babies that in 1970s Britain social services found harder to place. Babies with health problems, or black or Asian babies. When my brother and sister tease me about the privileges of being the youngest, I protest I was never the youngest because there was always a newborn baby in the house!
The fostering brought its challenges and tested friendships (so much racist ignorance back then with ‘friends’ recoiling and asking “don’t you find the colour comes off on the sheets?”).
There was heartbreak and joy as the babies came and went over the years – 23 different babies in total, each with their own complex human story. I remember Mum’s tears as babies she had grown to love with all her heart, finally after many months would go to a new adoptive home (or back to the birth mother). She would smile through her tears though, saying “but it really just means now there’s room for a baby who perhaps needs me even more”.
So, against this backdrop I grew to adulthood, and was doubly fortunate to meet a man who had also been blessed with a happy secure childhood. We celebrate our 25th Wedding Anniversary this year and in turn now we provide, I believe, a loving place for our own 3 daughters (age 16, 14 and 10) to thrive and grow.
I love what we’ve created, and sometimes when we’re all together, just comfortable being ourselves with each other, I feel like I’m basking in the warmth of the connection and love. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not ‘perfect’ (whatever that would be); there are still squabbles and battles about messy rooms and all the usual tensions of family life.
There are plenty of times when I know I’ve got it wrong and not reacted how I’ve wanted to. And there’s still plenty left for the kids to blame us for when they are older! But I feel grateful and blessed with our happy family, very aware that it simply isn’t the case for SO many others.
I’ve thought about fostering myself over the years, but in my heart I know it’s a step too far for me. Something about it feels too relentless and I fear I’d jeopardise some of what we’ve created for our own children.
But I’ve also known I’ve wanted to find a way to share some of the emotional wealth we have with those who have been less fortunate, as well as a way to give our own kids perspective on the comfortable, privileged life we enjoy.
The opportunity for just that presented itself recently, which you will be aware of if you’re a regular reader of this blog!
A school newsletter raised the work of our local Friends of Chernobyl’s Children group, who were looking for host families and helpers for their next five year programme. The charity brings a group of at risk children, aged between 7 and 12 over from the Mogilev region of Belarus – an area still heavily contaminated by radiation from the Chernobyl disaster. They stay with host families for a month each year to give their little bodies respite from the accumulative impact of the radiation (the incidence of thyroid cancer in children of that age in the area is scarily high).
Obviously, apart from the health issues, the social-economic conditions in the contaminated areas are very difficult. Alcoholism, poverty and poor health affect so many family lives. I went along to the meeting and was inspired by the difference the current host families had made in opening whole new possibilities for these children’s futures – not just for their health, but in the choices they can make as they grow to adulthood.
What sealed it was hearing the story of how one of the interpreters who accompany the children had herself been part of the scheme when the charity was first set up. The experience, and learning English, enabled her to get a good job and move out of the trap her family had been caught in. In turn she now gives back by spending her holidays as interpreter for the charity.
I may not feel I can foster full time, but to open our hearts and home for just one month a year? That I most certainly can do – but it’s not just about me. This would affect us all, so we talked it over as a family, and to my delight Paddy and the kids were as enthusiastic as I.
Then began the bureaucracy and checks, the planning, the fundraising (it costs about £1000 every year to bring one child over in visa, flights and other transportation costs alone). The children arrive with nothing but the clothes on their back; we send them home with suitcases bursting with clothes, toothbrushes, toiletries, vitamins, school uniform and other supplies.
While they are here they get checked by doctors, dentists and opticians. Weekdays the kids are together as a group with the interpreters and have an exciting programme of activities. Local businesses treat them to picnics, soft play centres, swimming, trips to the seaside (they’ve never seen the sea). Evenings and weekends they become part of their host family, given lots of loving care and a secure environment.
But as the time grew nearer, excited as I was, that little voice inside got louder and louder asking “but can you really do this, are you really up to it? Do you really know what you’re taking on?!”
I’d find out soon enough – next week’s blog is about what happened when our visitor arrived.