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GAIL WHITE Pupil inspires teacher to take action for orphans



Published: Wed, July 25, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



"I believe I am supposed to be teaching about life, not just subjects," said Dianna Rickard, seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher at United Local in Columbiana County.

Along with lessons in grammar and punctuation, she's taught her pupils about compassion, self-sacrifice, love and loss.

In 1992, Dianna responded to an ad looking for families interested in being host for the Children of Chernobyl program.

Though single and childless, Dianna applied. "I was the first one to respond," she said, remembering. "They said they were looking for families. I said because I am single I can spoil a child."

A child from Belarus came to stay with her that summer -- and three summers after that.

Each fall, Dianna returned to her classroom sharing stories of her summer guest and explaining the horrors of his homeland.

Her compassion and concern touched her students.

In 1995, one pupil was moved to action.

"It was eighth-grade English class," Dianna said, remembering the details exactly. She had just shared a story of a picture she had seen of young, orphan Chernobyl children playing with twigs in contaminated dirt.

"They have no toys," she told her pupils.

Concern: Thirteen-year-old Terry Martin, asked, "What about the orphans?"

Dianna stood silent. "I was so surprised this 13-year-old boy would care," she said, thinking. "I thought all these kids cared about was tennis shoes!"

But Terry wasn't done. He had another question.

"Who is going to help them if we don't?" he asked.

Prompted by his concern, Dianna went home and made a $50 phone call to Minsk, Belarus. She found out that there are 53 orphanages housing children affected by the Chernobyl disaster.

That was all Terry needed to hear.

"In America, we have all kinds of resources," Dianna remembered him saying. "They have us."

"He came home from school and said, 'What do we have to give to the orphans?' " recalled Lora Martin, Terry's mother.

He scoured his room and came up with a bunch of old Matchbox cars. His sisters gave Barbie dolls.

Meanwhile, his questions prompted action from the rest of his class.

"Three weeks before school let out for the summer these kids gathered up 250 toys," Dianna said.

Overwhelmed with the response, Dianna shared the story with her class the next year. They decided to contribute as well.

The tradition continues today.

Matchbox cars and Barbie dolls pour in from caring pupils.

If the cars are battered, pupils paint them with nail polish. If the Barbie clothes are tattered, the United Local IMPACT class sews new ones.

They have named their organization "Friends From Afar." Since 1995, United Local pupils have donated more than 30,000 toys to the cause.

Important for both sides: "This program is as important to United Local students as it is to the orphans," Dianna said. "It teaches them to be selfless."

The toys are distributed by local groups traveling to Chernobyl.

They return with pictures and stories that Dianna shares with her pupils.

She has entire photograph albums full of happy orphans holding Barbie dolls and playing with Matchbox cars.

Many of the photos show evidence of children suffering from illness.

"Leukemia is up 1,000 percent in some orphanages," Dianna said.

These simple gifts of compassion have brightened the lives of many lonely, hurting children.

It all began with a simple question asked by a 13-year-old boy.

In a sad twist, Terry Martin died of leukemia in 1999.

Yet his heartfelt question, "What about the orphans?" continues to be answered by United Local pupils.

XDonations for "Friends From Afar" can be made by calling (330) 332-8482.

gwhite@vindy.com




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