Valley families open homes, hearts to kids

About 100 Mahoning Valley families have opened their homes to the children.
CANFIELD -- This summer marks the first time Yanina Shenderova of Belarus has visited the United States, and already she has been to Cleveland, Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Idlewild Park in Pennsylvania.
She's also seen and heard enough to share a few aspects of American life that she enjoys.
"I love to visit toy stores and I like Madonna," she said through a translator.
Yanina, 9, who lives most of the year in Schibrin Village, is staying with her host family, Colleen McCoy and George Sfakis of East Liverpool.
The three were among about 80 people who attended a picnic Sunday at the Canfield home of Alex and Dina Jerry. The Jerrys are members of Children of Chernobyl, an organization set up to help kids affected by the 1986 nuclear disaster there, and are host parents of Yana Bychok and Alena Rachenkava, both of Belarus.
Sfakis described Yanina as "very bright and interested in culture and language," and added that she has a sense of humor.
Questioning and learning
McCoy said she and her husband have made three trips to Belarus to learn more about family life there and to visit schools, among other things. The couple encouraged pupils to ask them questions about life in the United States and other topics, she said.
Kids up to age 17 in the COC program live with U.S. host families for eight weeks from June to mid-August each year, and many become fluent in English. The program has host families in four or five states, with about 100 in the Mahoning Valley.
While here, the kids receive free medical and dental care as well as physicals and bloodwork at St. Elizabeth Health Center. Host families also ask their eye doctors to offer services.
For the first year, COC pays to bring children over, all of whom go through New York City. Beyond the initial year, host parents pay to bring the kids back.
Nuclear disaster
On April 26, 1986, one of four nuclear reactors exploded in Chernobyl, Ukraine, and people within 30 miles of the plant were displaced because of dangerous levels of radiation. The area, known as the "dead zone," is still uninhabited.
People in nearby Belarus, which was part of the Soviet Union, learned of the disaster several days later. The country gained its independence in 1991, but still struggles with the effects of high radiation and contamination carried over by wind after the accident.
Kids and adults took advantage of ideal weather to get together at the picnic and enjoy a buffet-style meal and each other. Activities included volleyball, basketball, horseshoes and a tug-o-war, as well as entertainment by the Kellys, a local band.
While some people frolicked in the Jerrys' back yard, ate and took in the music, others somberly gathered to watch "Chernobyl Heart," an Emmy-Award winning documentary depicting the effects of the radiation on infants and children. One scene showed a hospital room in Gomel City, Belarus, and the defects many infants suffered from exposure to radiation. According to the documentary, Belarus has an infant mortality rate 300 percent higher than that of the rest of Europe.
Opening doors
In the nine years he's been part of the program, Sasha Kirilenko, 16, of Skrygalov, Belarus, has learned to golf and water-ski, and has seen Niagara Falls and Washington, D.C. He's also become fluent in English and has learned the basics of flying a plane.
He's staying with Jacques and Phyllis Harvey of Hubbard, and hopes to visit the Air Force Museum in Washington before he returns to Belarus next week. Sasha, wearing a Youngstown State University T-shirt, said the program has changed his life.
"They're like my second family," he said of the Harveys. "[Phyllis] is the best cook in the world."
"He can watch you do something and do it himself. He's done well," Jacques Harvey said. Harvey, 73, a COC trustee and private pilot, said he's made five trips to Belarus and considers Sasha "one of our own."
Tatyana Kosheleve and Olga Zalesskaya, both of whom are interpreters and English professors at Minsk State Linguistic University in Minsk, Belarus, praised the families for including the kids in their lives.
"The host families didn't open their houses, they opened their hearts for these kids," Kosheleve said.
The program gives the kids a chance to better themselves and to gain insight "for other possibilities and opportunities in life," Kosheleve noted. It also deepens many Americans' appreciation for what they have, she added.
Zalesskaya said one of her duties is to help host families if there's a misunderstanding or communication gap between them and their Byelorussian children. Another is to share kids' likes and dislikes as well as interests, and to prepare the kids for what to expect, she continued.
Dina Jerry, owner of Sei Bella salon in Boardman, said she became inspired after a cousin became a host to a young boy. She's made several trips to Belarus and the struggles, poverty and lack of systems to help sick children reinforced her desire to reach out, she said.
She and her husband have been a host family for seven years and have also adopted two children from Russia.

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