Who We Are

Our Top Mission…

is to give the children of Belarus a better life.

For Over Two Decades

We Have Been Helping More Then 10,000 Lives

On April 26, 1986 the worst nuclear disaster in history took place at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Ukraine. Some scientists say there was 100 times more radiation released than there was when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Belarus, the small country to the north of Ukraine received 70% of the radiation fallout. Since then there has been 200% increase in thyroid diseases and cancers as well as an increase in leukemia, birth defects, and vitamin deficiencies. The disaster left the country as a whole in great need of help. Now their main source of income, agriculture and forestry, is covered in radiation, and with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the country found themselves in severe economic hardship that they have not fully recovered from.

ABRO began with a phone call

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 only do big stories. You wouldn’t be interested.”
Allison Culpepper explained her husband Rich was pastor of a small mission
congregation in Connecticut with 60 members. It wasn’t yet strong enough to own its own
building. When they learned 16 children and two chaperones from the contaminated regions of
Belarus were at a nearby medical center for evaluation on the effects of radiation exposure
needed places to stay, 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.
With the children was a reporter from Pravda, the main newspaper in the Soviet Union,
to do a story on Soviet children in America, and a young engineer and Baptist deacon from
Mogilev, as chaperones. 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 the conversation and sort everything
out.
At the end of the week, the children were preparing to return home. Yura, the young
engineer, 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 departed.
When they arrived in Minsk the next morning, the Soviet Union no longer existed and Belarus
was an independent nation.
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 in the newly-minted, nascent nation
of Belarus. About a year later, Yura called: “I speak good English now, you come see me.”
I learned he had also called Allison and Rich. I also learned the reporter from Pravda had
used photographs I had sent her for stories that ran in publications across the former Soviet
Union. Yura had gone to the new government of Belarus and said: 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 we would pay for the travel. After much discussion, I
put three tickets on a credit care and worried 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
their children play outside for fear of radiation exposure. Orphans who had lost parents to
Chernobyl. Three days on wards in a hospital with children being treated for cancer was heartwrenching.
Medications to treat them were scarce. I watched a physician call across the former
Soviet Union attempting to find them. In the end there was never 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 with the hope several weeks of clean air and good food would help repair
their immune systems and offer them a brighter future. We chose the name American Belarussian
Relief Organization and set a goal of bringing 30 children the following summer.
When we returned home, I cranked out stories, and looked 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 we
could run out of our back pockets and ABRO became a 501(c)3, charitable organization.
Over the past 30 years more than 10,000 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?

By Bill Bangham

Bill is a photojournalist, writer and editor, and one of the founders of ABRO. He lives
with his wife in Memphis, Tennessee.

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