South Charlotte

Belarusian kids enjoy time in Matthews

When Igor Kaleyeu arrived at his host family's home earlier this month, he went straight to his familiar bedroom and pulled out the dresser drawer where he had kept his clothes last summer.

The 8-year-old grabbed the pair of swim trunks he knew would be there.

"I go swim," he said to Jami Comer, his host mother.

While a dip in the Comer's neighborhood pool is a treat for Igor, swimming in the United States also means he'll be immersed in something more important - water that is free of radiation.

Igor and 14 other Belarusian children came to the United States earlier this month and will stay for six weeks.

They came from cities and villages that still are highly contaminated with radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant that exploded 25 years ago.

These children weren't alive in 1986, but the lingering contamination increases their risk of thyroid cancer, leukemia and vitamin deficiencies. In Charlotte, they can spend six months breathing better air and eating healthy food.

This is the sixth year Matthews United Methodist Church, working with the American Belarusian Relief Organization, has brought children here for six weeks in the summer. The trip also provides an opportunity to learn English and experience the United States.

"The more they can get out, the better it is for their health," said Beth Meyer, MUMC coordinator for the Belarusians' visit. "Here they can build up their immune systems, and when they return to Belarus they will be less susceptible to the flu and cold season."

This year's group arrived in mid-June accompanied by Inna Dolbun, 27, who first traveled to the United States as a child in the program. Now she works as a nurse in Belarus.

The children range in age from 7 to 16. Two of the younger girls are Dolbun's nieces, Anne, 7, and Angelina, 10.

"Every day (in Belarus) my niece (Anne) who was traveling to America for the first time was asking me when we are leaving," Dolbun said.

"This trip is very important for them."

The first days after they arrived, the group and their host families went to Solstas Lab Partners, where they gave blood samples. Then they went to Carolina Family Healthcare, where nurse practitioner Kristen Spratt and Dr. Dino Kanelos gave the children check-ups.

All of the services are free.

"It's an awesome opportunity to help out the kids," Kanelos said.

Each child returns home with a medical report, which can ease Belarusian parents concerns about their child's growth or alert them to any issues. Host families take the children to their family dentists, and Stephen Daugherty of Horizon Eye Care provides vision check-ups.

Less than 24 hours after they arrived, some Belarusian children already where mingling with their American counterparts as they waited for medical appointments.

"They fit right into the family," said Comer, who is hosting a Belarusian child for the fifth year. Comer and her husband Jeff have two children ages 4 and 7.

"My kids talk about (the Belarusians' visit) all year long," she said.

Host families take the children swimming, to the zoo and to Carowinds. Some go to the beach - a special treat because Belarus does not have a coastline.

The children attend Sunday school and vacation Bible school at Matthews United Methodist, and Russian speakers from First Slavic Baptist Church in Charlotte lead classes.

For families with young children, such as the Comers, the trip is a way for the family to be involved with missions without having to travel.

"This is the mission trip that comes to you," Jami Comer said.