CHAPEL HILL — Summertime, and around here, the livin’ is considerably slower if not easier. Our universities’ student/faculty population drops off, the pols on Jones Street start working together in earnest to pass the state budget bills and get on home, and most of the rest of us drones take the customary week or two off and head for the beach or mountains. Traffic on the Beltline seems to drop in direct proportion to the rising temperatures, emitting a message as clear as a horn’s beep: The Triangle’s a great place to live, but you wouldn’t want to stay here all summer.
For the last several years, however, increasing numbers of families are staying put in June and July to take in some visitors who spend the rest of their year dreaming of coming to the Triangle.
Through a nonprofit humanitarian aid group called ABRO, the American Belarussian Relief Organization, about 450 children from Belarus spend six weeks living with families in North Carolina and 10 other states. Belarus is the former Soviet republic that remains contaminated with radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant accident, and even though most of these children weren’t born when the accident occurred, they suffer the physical, emotional and economical effects of the radiation poisoning.
These kids suffer from a variety of health problems that include thyroid cancer, leukemia and other glandular disorders. In America, they spend their time breathing radiation-free air, eating nutritious foods that aren’t available back home and receiving critically needed medical care: dental visits, eye exams and physical checkups, all of which is performed for free or a nominal fee by a huge amount of area doctors and other health care professionals. Those six weeks away from the radiation, scientists have found, is enough time for the radiation levels in their small bodies to significantly drop.
This summer, about 150 kids are staying with 100 Triangle host families. ABRO works mainly through churches — the Raleigh Baptist Association was one of the first groups to get on board back in the early ’90s — and the children’s travel costs are sponsored through churches or businesses. Families pay all the rest of the costs, and some even pay the travel expenses. Dan Edwards, a Wendell financial consultant who also serves as ABRO’s treasurer, pointed me in the direction of Rebecca Coyne, a Chapel Hill mother who has hosted children for three summers and took on the mind-boggling task this year of keeping seven kids, all of whom have more serious illnesses.
Taking in seven sick children who don’t speak English is an extraordinary way to spend your summer, but picture this: The Coynes have five kids of their own: Libby, 16; Jimmy, 14; Jacob, 12; Daniel, 11; and Joseph, 7. Added to that mix this summer are: Dennis, 13; Andre, 13; Sacha, 12; Sacha Dennisov, 11; Peytye, 12; Yuliya 10; and Vitali, 13.
So, 12 kids: 10 boys and two girls.
“We are living in testosterone city!” Becky says over the phone with a laugh, and invites me over.
Theirs is the house in The Oaks, one of those high-end golf communities, with the madcap canine-children’s soccer game taking place on the trampled front lawn. The Coynes are big on naming things, and they call their house “The Shoe” although I swear I thought she said “The Zoo.”
Boys are everywhere, running, chasing and laughing and joking in a mixture of Russian and English. Inside, Daniel Coyne earns money by mopping the floors. The living room is home to a giant-screen TV, a baby grand piano and a set of drums. “Our neighbors love us, I’m sure!” Coyne says.
The children call her Mama, and that she is. Becky Coyne is one of those women whom you want to hug at first sight. With warm brown eyes, a pleasant plumpness and an irrepressible laugh, she is the essence of comfort. But she’s also got a will you wouldn’t want to oppose. Her husband, Jeffrey, is a lawyer who specializes in international corporate law and therefore travels a lot. He is, 43-year-old Becky says, a very serious and extremely patient man.
To understand why Coyne surrounds herself with all these kids and chaos, you need to know a little history. She’s the second youngest child of a minister. She grew up all over the country, landing finally in California, and she had 15 foster brothers and sisters. She has spent her life around children with special needs. She has a master’s degree in special education and taught deaf children in North Carolina and California.
And she was a child with special needs. She had polio and was in and out of hospitals for most her childhood. Even now she cannot walk without a leg brace.
She understands living in a houseful of kids the same way she understands what it’s like to be a sick child. And she makes others understand that, too.
“My husband laughs and says that I get in people’s faces and defy them not to help the poor crippled woman,” she says.
The Coynes moved from Los Angeles to Chapel Hill nearly four years ago, and first heard about the ABRO program from a friend in Wake Forest. Three summers ago, Yuliya and Sacha came to stay, and those two have returned to the Coynes’ house each summer since.
After that first summer, Becky Coyne says, she had doubts and concerns about the program.
“Look, this is Disney World for these kids,” she says as she fries up an enormous pan of pork chops and onions. “But I wondered what it was doing for the children, and whether it was just some freebie train.”
So in December 1996, she went with a group to Belarus. Not only was she was convinced of the program’s importance to these children’s lives, but she decided that she needed to take in the sickest children.
One certain effect of the radiation has been an increase in thyroid cancer. Some of Becky Coyne’s kids, now into puberty, are the size of first-graders. They come to Duke University Medical Center for treatments and testing that are not only unavailable but unimaginable in Belarus.
After the children arrived, Becky Coyne gently and firmly pushed the doctors at Duke into treating them.
“She’s a very persuasive woman,” says Michael Freemark, chief of the division of pediatric endocrinology and diabetes at Duke. You get the impression that he’s being just as diplomatic as she was persuasive. “What happened was I got a call from another doctor who said, ‘Are you ready to see the Russian children? They’re here.'”
Freemark had no idea who they were or why they were in his office, but after a few phone calls and conversations with Coyne, he and some of his co-workers agreed to help out. The kids have had lab work and some have had cat scans. A Belarussian doctor who is caring for them and is also over here has been working with the doctors from Duke to find ways to better care for the children when they go back.
It was Becky Coyne’s willpower and perseverance that put the doctors together.
“Politically, we can’t form these relationships,” she says. “But I hope that we can make some headway through ABRO.”
The first year Coyne hosted Yuliya and Sacha, she knew two Russian words.
“I could say, dah and nyet, but those are the two most important words a mother needs to know,” she says.
Now the Coyne kids and Belarussian kids communicate well in a mixture of Russian, English and pantomime. Even Becky’s vocabulary has expanded.
This summer has brought a lot of visits to doctors, but also a great deal of fun. The Coynes have taken the kids to their country club and taught them to swim. They have introduced the children to fireworks, Popsicles, the mysteries of Rollerblading and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
The hardest parts have been facing serious medical problems, and the homesickness that spreads fast. The Coynes let the children call home, but some can’t — because their parents don’t have telephones.
“It’s the quiet times of the days when things get tough,” she says. “When we’re busy, they don’t think about being away from home.”
Other than their size, and the few who have scars on their necks from past surgeries, you would not know these kids are sick. Earlier this week at the house, they ran inside and out in their very American shorts and T-shirts and big clunky tennis shoes. Sacha and Andre systematically plowed through a couple of bags of potato chips and a bucket of chocolate ice cream while we talked about the ABRO program. Their Russian is rapid-fire, but the English pretty darn near perfect as Andre says, “Thanks for the chocolate ice cream, Mama.”
“My heart gets stolen regularly,” Becky Coyne says.
And on a visit like this, broken regularly, too.
Yuliya, the little girl who is now 10, has drawn a picture on Becky Coyne’s calendar of a crying face on the day they go home.
“Mama always cries that day,” she says.
Just then 12-year-old Jacob wanders past.
“We all do,” he says.
Mary E. Miller can be reached at 919-829-4818 or firstname.lastname@example.org