Last year’s Rose of Kilkenny, Sinéad de Buitléir, joined the Kilkenny Chernobyl Outreach Group committee last September, and was spurred to action after watching a documentary on the Vesnova orphanage featuring local man Jim Kavanagh.
In April this year, Sinead organised a hurlers’ leg wax event, which raised over E1,000 for the charity. It was partly this funding that allowed her to fly out to Belarus in September, with a four-person medical team.
When she knew she would be going, the first step was trying to secure as many things to bring over for the children as possible.
Airlines are generally quite understanding with groups going out to Belarus. The 20kg luggage weight limit is not as strictly enforced when bringing supplies to needy children.
“I put out a notice saying I was looking for supplies,” she says
“Nappies and sudocream were my two main things – the nappy situation is dire out there. I put that out on Facebook and went around my neighbours at home. People were so generous, especially given the way things are right now.”
The staff at St Luke’s, where Sinead is on work placement, also helped with supplies – as did local pharmacies and people. The group needed money for medication for the children as they are unable to afford it themselves.
They left Dublin on Sunday morning. The trip is a 12-hour journey necessitating connecting flights. It was night when they arrived at the asylum.
“The gates were locked, so someone came out to let us in,” recalls Sinead.
“I remember the smell when I walked in. It was a strong smell of disinfectant, really horrible. That was what struck me first.”
Sleep proved elusive that first night.
“I didn’t really sleep, I was really nervous,” she says.
“Just as I felt I was starting to doze off, there was this... sound. An enormous sound – it was a huge crowd of children passing the door on their way to breakfast, around 7.30am. They are woken at 6.30.”
That morning, the group visited the two most well-known units in the children’s asylum: Unit 2 and Unit 5. These are the areas where children with serious physical and intellectual disabilites reside.
“The smell of urine in Unit 5 was overpowering,” recalls Sinead.
“They are only allowed two nappies every 24 hours for each child, because of the shortage. We helped with the feeding and the washing.
“But it was really tough. The physical deformities are really shocking, I will never forget it.”
Then it was on to Unit 2, where the children have disabilities, but have some degree of personal mobility.
“That was a total contrast, because it was suddenly just a swarm of 16 kids grabbing hold of your arms and legs, they want to hug you,” she says.
“We fed them, they’re being fed sitting down on the floor, with a big spoon.”
Sinead says that the longer she spent in the orphanage, the more challenging she found it.
“It’s a bit of a shock to the system,” she says.
“The first morning you are just trying to take everything in. As the week went on, I actually began to find it tougher and tougher. I didn’t feel I was getting anywhere.
“You are trying to teach the carers to maybe use a smaller spoon instead of a big one, or even to handle the children a bit differently, but it’s very difficult – they are relucant to change their methods.”
Children in other units, from around 12 years old are obliged to do some work in the orphanage – cutting the lawn, picking up leaves, sweeping the floor or working in the kitchen. But Sinead says the importance of play or just ‘being a child’ is essential for proper development.
“It’s mostly about just spending time with them or teaching them to play,” she says.
“One little boy just couldn’t play – he didn’t know how to interact, which is obviously hugely important. Certain basic needs are not being met – playtime, good hygiene, good care.
“It has improved, but there is still a lot of work to be done. I’d encourage people to volunteer, or go out for a week. It’s also important to continue fundraising with the Kilkenny group to get some of the kids over for a break.”