July 9, 1995 in City

A Child’s Refuge From Chernobyl Program Lets Children Take ‘Vacations’ To Rebuild Immune Systems

Debera Carlton Harrell And Joe Mooney Seattle Post-Intellige
 

Olga Stolyrova, 10, and her sister Natalia, 6, were among 80 “children of Chernobyl” who landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Wednesday, far away from their parents and the lingering effects of the world’s worst nuclear explosion.

Sponsored by various local families and a year-old non-profit organization called Fund for the Children of Chernobyl-Northwest, the children are here on a six-week “health vacation” to build their immune systems through healthy diet, vitamins, minerals, fresh air, exercise and sophisticated medical and dental care.

Amid the tears, squeals of delight and hugs, the Stolyrova sisters weren’t thinking about vitamins and minerals. Olga, making her second trip, was eager for host parent Karen DeCouteau of Bonney Lake, Wash., to meet her sister. And a wide-eyed Natalia simply tried to take in all the excitement.

DeCouteau, who said Olga last year missed her sister so much and “felt so guilty in the land of plenty” that she saved and mailed half of every bubble gum stick to Natalia, couldn’t bear to not see Olga again - and had no intention of splitting the girls up.

As they cleared customs, what raced through DeCouteau’s mind was how her good-sport fiance, Rick Witters, would take to the sisters - whom she intends to have as flower girls in their Aug. 20 wedding, a week before they return to their postal-carrier mom and auto mechanic dad in Rogachev, Belarus.”I asked her to marry me about a month after we met,” Witter chuckled, “and she said, ‘Oh, by the way. …’ ”

DeCouteau hugged the new arrivals and urged her two sons from a previous marriage, Connor, 8, and Austin, 7, to do the same. The boys presented “glitter hair” Barbie dolls to their summertime sisters, and showed their youthful command of Russian, including the word for “ketchup.”

Eddie Burkhalter, DeCouteau’s future mother-in-law, offered a fruit basket to the girls. While Olga downed the harvest gratefully, Natalia paused partway through her supply of grapes to sample her first strawberry, not much smaller than her fist.

It is the fruit, milk and other nourishment that DeCouteau hopes will help prolong the lives of two children to whom she has become increasingly attached. She became involved with the humanitarian program after her pastor at Lake Tapps Christian Church told her she could sponsor a child of her choice.

“I’d always wanted a girl,” DeCouteau said. “It was a selfish thing, really. But it is also what my church calls a ‘backward mission’ - instead of us going to another country to help, we bring the children here.”

Back at her lakefront cottage, as all four children laugh and swim and feed biscuits to the family dog, the seriousness of that mission is not lost on DeCouteau.

An explosion and fire devastated one reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine on April 26, 1986.

Radioactive pollutants were carried primarily to what are now the republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. At least 32 people died in the immediate aftermath, but scientists say thousands more died later of related illnesses.

“The children of Chernobyl’s life expectancies can be quite short. Thousands of kids have died,” DeCouteau said.

She knows that while the bond forged with the two girls is important, there is a line she must not cross.

“I’m a bonus mom,” DeCouteau says. “It would be very easy to seduce them with material opportunities, but we are very cautious not to. It would not be hard to make them want to stay, but that is not our intention.

“We tell them they’re here to get healthy - Olga’s mom told me she only got sick once last year, which is a big improvement - and that they have two parents who love them so much they let them go so they could get better,” she said.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Debera Carlton Harrell and Joe Mooney Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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