ABRO [America Belarussian Relief Organization]
We are sad to announce within the year ABRO will shut its doors due to ongoing issues stemming from the war in Ukraine. Our resources are reduced and we have been unable to generate significant funds to continue much longer.
From its inception 32 years ago, ABRO sought to offer relief to children living in regions contaminated by radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Over those years nearly 20,000 children participated in family-style retreats, learned computer skills, attended camps in uncontaminated areas, and received medical and dental care. The majority participated in summer programs which brought them to the United States to live with American families for six weeks during summers. It was a time of respite from the radiation to which they are continuously exposed. The time allowed their immune systems to significantly recover.
We’ve had a good run. While we’re sad about this organization coming to an end, we’re at peace about it. There is too little space and too many people to thank who sustained us over the years. As well as the hundreds of members of families who sacrificed, both here and in Belarus, a few current and past board members deserve a mention.
Among them are Deon Arnold and Carsie Denning, board members since our inception. Deon made more trips into Belarus than any member of the board. Dan Edwards, whose skill and expertise, established the financial footing that allowed us to weather lean times, including COVID. Because of his efforts, we continued to pay our executive director two-and-a-half years into the pandemic with little or no additional income, and our Belarus partners until now. Donald Dawson, who until recently continued Dan’s work. And Ken Touchton, a fellow photojournalist whose encouragement kept us going during difficult times.
Also our exceptional staff over the years: Among them Joe and Danetta Strong who for many years served as a team while Joe was our executive director. Under their leadership, there were years we worked with as many as 800 children; and Lena Saprykina and her current staff in Belarus.
There are many others who could be named. Thank you all for the work you put into ABRO. Through it we made a difference in the lives of many families and children.
There was a point early on when several of us questioned whether our efforts helped much. At a meeting with parents of the children in Belarus, one of them said: “We send you sick children and you send us healthy children back. Then we watch them become sick again.”
It was all the encouragement we needed.
ABRO Board of Directors:
Deon Arnold, president
Bill Bangham, founding member
A Short ABRO History
I was sitting at my desk in the office of the magazine I was editing at the time when the phone rang. A woman on the line said, “I’ve made a bet with my husband and it involves you. Our church is housing children exposed to radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. My husband says this is a good story, the kind of story you do, and that I should call and tell you about it. I told him you won’t be interested. You only do big stories.”
Allison Culpepper’s husband Rich was pastor of a small mission congregation in Connecticut with 60 members. It wasn’t yet strong enough to have its own building. When they learned 16 children from the contaminated regions of Belarus and two chaperones needed places to stay while the children underwent evaluation on the effects of radiation exposure at nearby medical center, they volunteered to host them in their homes.
“Allison,” I responded, “tell your husband you just lost your bet.”
A few weeks later a writer and I were in Connecticut to work on their story.
The two chaperones were a reporter from Pravda, the main newspaper in the Soviet Union at the time, there to do a story on Soviet children in America, and a young engineer, Yura Tchekhovskiy. from Mogilev, Belarus. Neither spoke much English and I less Russian. We would sit around pantomiming and pulling words from an English-Russian dictionary, attempting to communicate. Whenever a translator wandered by we’d drag them into our conversation and sort everything out.
At the end of the week, the children were preparing to return home. Yura pulled me aside and asked: “If I invite you to my country would you come?” What could I say? “Of course!” never expecting it would happen. Later that day the children flew home. When they arrived in Belarus the next morning, the Soviet Union no longer existed and their country was an independent nation0.
The article we ran, generated a lot of attention. It went on a wire service and was picked up by a couple of dozen newspapers and magazines. Over the following months, I didn’t think much about it, other than wondering how things were going for my friends in the newly-minted nation of Belarus. About a year later, Yura called: “I speak good English now, you come see me.”
He told me the reporter from Pravda had used photographs I sent her for stories that ran in publications across the former Soviet Union. He had also called Allison and Rich, and invited them. Yura had gone to the new government of Belarus and told them: This man, who did all these photographs would come here and do more stories about our children, and these people who were so kind to our children would come visit if we invite them, and we could thank them.
We had invitations, but no idea how to pay for the travel. After much discussion, I put three tickets on a credit card and decided to worry about paying for them later.
We were there nearly three weeks, talking with government officials, visiting orphanages, being feted. I broke off and began working on stories. I found parents who were afraid to let their children play outside for fear of radiation exposure, and orphans who had lost parents to the Chernobyl disaster. Three days on wards in a hospital for children being treated for cancer was heart-wrenching. Medications to treat them were scarce. I watched a physician call across the former Soviet Union attempting to find them. In the end there wasn’t enough and the supply forced him to determine who would live and who would die.
On one of our final days there, the four of us gathered in Yura’s flat and spent time in prayer. At the end of the evening we decided we would bring children to the U.S. and find families to host them for several weeks of clean air and good food with the hope it would help repair their immune systems. We chose the name American Belarusian Relief Organization and set a goal of bringing 30 children the following summer.
When we returned home, I began cranking out stories, and looking for magazines and newspapers to place them. Allison looked for places to speak. That first summer we brought over 45 children, the next 100, the following the 200. We began to gather a group of people who had skills we didn’t have and a board of directors was formed. We realized this was becoming larger than the two of us could run out of our back pockets and ABRO became a 501c3, charitable organization.
Over the past 32 years nearly 20,000 children have come to the U.S., received medical assistance and respite through the generous support of the American families who host them. Others have attended camps in the uncontaminated regions of Belarus. Still more have been assisted through social service projects the organization has sponsored and staffed across the contaminated areas. Who knew all this would happen because of a bet and a phone call?
Bill Bangham is a photojournalist, writer and editor, and one of the founders of ABRO. He lives with his wife in Memphis, Tennessee.