By SHERRI L. SHAULIS
VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF
VIENNA -- The tears couldn't be stopped as the children walked up the ramp to the airplanes.
They rubbed their eyes and sniffled a little as they turned to wave goodbye. As they boarded the planes, they looked toward the fence, hoping to see one last time the faces that became so familiar over the past eight weeks.
About 40 children from Belarus started their journey home Monday from the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport and flew to New York City for the final part of the trip. An additional 110 children will make the trek today and Wednesday.
The visitors were part of the Children of Chernobyl program, which marked its 11th year this summer. The program, part of the United States Charitable Fund, provides advantages to the children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 by bringing them to America each summer.
Families from Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Texas, Illinois, California and Missouri host the children each year. In 1992, the first year of Children of Chernobyl, 11 children stayed in the Salem area for the summer. Today, more than 150 children visit each year.
"The organization pays for the first-time visitors between the ages of 8 and 12," explained Denise Zetts of Campbell, who has hosted children for the past five years. "After that, if a family chooses to bring a child back, they have to pay for the airfare."
Zhanna Sapego and Nastya Sergeeva, both 12, are seasoned veterans of the program, visiting for their fifth and fourth summers, respectively.
"It was scary at first, but it's not anymore," Sapego said of her annual visit to another country. "I like to see my family and friends here."
This year, the girls said they visited parks and amusement parks, zoos and more; all things they never get a chance to do in their home country.
As they stood in the airport lobby, waiting for their flight, the two talked of the presents they were taking back with them, and of how the annual exchange affects their future plans.
"My family here says if I get really good at English, maybe I come back here and go to college," Sapego said.
Sasha Fedarovich, 12, was also visiting for his fifth summer, and sat with his American "grandmother," Dottie Faith, as he waited to board the plane. While in America, staying with Betsy and Jim LaRiccia of Austintown, he learned to appreciate American church services -- "The singing is better here," he says -- and he has decided he wants to be a doctor, either in Belarus or in America.
Treats for the family
Aksana Yadchenko, 13, who trains for the Olympics as a runner at home, spends her summers with the Micsky family of Greenville, Pa. She loves to shop, spending hours picking out clothes, watches and souvenirs.
"She is taking back things she can't get at home, like ketchup and peanut butter," said her American "mom," Lee Ann Micsky.
Like many of the other children, Yadchenko laughed and smiled as her final minutes in America came to an end this year. When the final call for boarding came, though, her face was flushed with the tears she couldn't stop.
"It's horrible to watch, because they cry and don't want to go home," Zetts said. "But once they get to New York, they are calm, and ready to go home and see their parents and family again."