Ministry provides respite
from toxic environment
By Jean Gordon
Last summer, Ulyana Krugol of Belarus spent a month in Mississippi living like many American children do.
She got to eat fast food, play in a water park and attend Vacation Bible School.
But her favorite part of her trip was something children may dread: going to the doctor.“It doesn’t hurt here like in Belarus,” the 10-year-old said through a translator.
Krugol is back in the Magnolia State this summer to get a break from her radiation-contaminated homeland. She’s part of a contingent of 33 children visiting the state for medical and spiritual care.
The children from Belarus are the guests of a local organization called All God’s Children, Mississippi, which for the past decade has been sponsoring groups of 8- to 14-year olds from the former Soviet republic. The region got poisoned in 1986 by an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.
The disaster is considered the worst nuclear accident in history. It spewed radioactive material primarily over Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus. The contamination lingers to this day.
Though the children were all born after the Chernobyl disaster, many suffer from radiation-related diseases including thyroid problems and other illnesses.
During their stay in Mississippi, the children live with host families around the metro area and in Starkville, Columbus and McComb.
The youngsters attend a Russian-language Vacation Bible School, join summer activities with their host families and get free medical and dental care from the 20 pediatricians and dentists who volunteer with the ministry.
“They really need a lot of dental care,” said Sheila Jones, president of All God’s Children, Mississippi. “One child had to have four root canals during his first summer here.”
Jones helped start the nonprofit group in Mississippi after a preacher she knew asked her to visit a similar program in Alabama.“The reason we bring them over here is to teach them about Jesus,” she said about the ministry’s main goal.
Though most children in Belarus have been baptized in the Russian Orthodox church, Jones said the country’s regime persecutes people for practicing their religion.
When interviewing host families, Jones said she looks for “strong Christian families” that pray. She recruits from local churches where pastors can provide a good reference.
“We want these kids exposed to the family’s faith,” she said. “Not necessarily converted, that’s not what we’re about.”
Bob and Melissa Jackson got involved with All God’s Children through their church, First United Methodist Church in Clinton, which is one of several congregations that supports the ministry.
Families pay expenses for hosting their guests. The ministry raises $2,800 per child to pay for airfare, visas and health insurance.
Host families say they want to help the children of Belarus because giving them a break from the toxic conditions in their country can markedly improve their health.
“The organization started to give them a chance to get out of that environment,” said Bob Jackson, a timber land investor.
Jackson considers his relationships he’s built with the people of Belarus “a blessing.”He and his wife now make regular trips to the former Soviet republic, where the families of the children they’ve hosted are delighted to return the hospitality.
“I’ve never been treated better anywhere outside the U.S. than in Belarus,” Jackson said.
Jackson said the people of Belarus have a strong, proud spirit, despite the economic woes that have plagued the country since the Soviet era.“They’re still living in a situation that’s like our Great Depression,” he said, adding the average Belarusian earns about $25-$30 a week.
Kristina Gormash, 14, has been visiting the same Mississippi family for six summers. Over the years she has traveled with her hosts to vacation spots in Texas, Florida and Louisiana.
“Every year is a new place,” she said.
She said she likes “everything” about America and hopes to one day work as a translator for the Belarusian children traveling to Mississippi.“When I came it was brand new for me,” she said about her first visit. “My feeling about all of this country and the people is so kind.”
This article first appeared in the June 19 issue of “The Clarion-Ledger” and is used with permission.