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News: 29 May 2020

Volunteer Story : The O’Brien Family

29 May 2020

CCI have many families volunteering throughout the country. The O’Briens from Dublin are  one of these families.

The family first got involved through Emily who as a teenager was introduced to CCI. She explains that it was ‘something I was privileged to be part of and something I wanted my family to be able to contribute to’. Emily is now a front-line worker, employed as a clinical neuro physiologist, and has witnessed the horror of Covid unfold in her hospital. Emily encouraged the family to get involved and Alice (mum) initially got involved with the Dublin Branch when she agreed to be treasurer. “I was completely struck by the warmth and love shown to the children of Vesnova by the volunteers on the committee and their total commitment to improving their lives. I couldn’t but get more involved”.

Enthusiasm is contagious and by the summer of 2016 the whole family had joined the volunteers working with the teens and young adults from Vesnova during their stay in Dublin. Every year since, the four of them have joined in the activities and try help create special memories for the teens and young adults. Peter takes annual leave from work to volunteer as a driver for the group during their summer Rest and Recuperation visits to Ireland which sadly have been postponed this year due to Covid restrictions.

A warm and tender moment caused by the confusion of the Russian word for ‘dog’ with the Russian word for ‘hippopotamus’ resulted in the family hosting Nina for Christmas 2016.

Lindsey became a buddy to Nina and included her in everything in her life, including bringing her to school for a morning. ‘When Nina came to stay with us, I was able to bring her to school for a morning, something that many Irish kids dread. But not Nina. She hadn’t experienced such an environment. It was so heart-warming to see her so fascinated by everything in the school, from the maps on the walls to all the people. For me, it was a time for Nina to be free and like any teenager. From going shopping to getting food and ice cream. It was the least she deserved’.

The following year the family hosted Olga while she was recovering from surgery.

Alice then volunteered to travel with the CCI care teams. Alice has now travelled with three different teams and explains that each experience has been different with amazing memories. ‘One of the strongest memories of my first visit (May 2017) was of Unit 5 – the high dependency unit. The smiles of the young Alina in room 1 and her cry to be picked up – it always worked, and the beaming grins from Alina in room 3 when you go in with breakfast.

The strongest memory from my most recent trip was of kindness from the Belarussians involved in Vesnova. We had a wonderful day in the grounds brought about by one of the carers and her husband. He so kindly made beautiful wooden games for the children to enjoy in the grounds. It reminded me of a school sports day when I was a kid. This was brought about by kindness and volunteering of those two wonderful people.

Alice recalls  a funny memory – ‘last August not long after arriving, Gresha came running and grabbed me in his arms lifting me off the ground in delight (you always get a wonderful welcome) and on putting me down he said “to Peter”. The hug was to be brought home to Peter!’. As well as being a regular driver and helper with the summer rest and recuperation visitors, Peter has travelled to Vesnova in January 2019 and 2020. Peter recalls ‘My first trip to Belarus was in the depths of winter in January 2019. I was so apprehensive about that first week and what lay ahead, what sights would I see, what sounds would I hear, how would I communicate with the children, would I be of any use on the ground at all. With all this playing on my mind, not only on the long journey over but also in the previous weeks and months beforehand, I stepped off the plane into a bitterly cold and snow covered Belarus still wondering if I was doing the right thing. In the event my doubts and fears evaporated within the first few minutes of meeting the children in the high dependency units, the ones who are sadly too sick to travel and can never come to Ireland for rest and recuperation. They are the most wonderful and heartwarming children I have ever met. The week I spent with them there in their home is one I will never forget. How glad I am that I made the trip over to see them. There is nothing like the feeling that in some small way you have made just a little bit of a difference to someones day. Even just talking to the children whilst you are feeding them, even if it is all in English and they haven’t a clue what you are talking about, its so heartwarming to get a reaction, to get eye contact, to get a smile. If there is one thing I can say I brought back to Ireland with me from Belarus, besides the wonderful memories, it is how each and everyone of them, with all their different challenges in life have made me appreciate my health and my wellbeing so much more and most certainly put everything in my life into a totally different perspective.’

Alice clearly feels that the 2018 visit stood out as particularly memorable and emotional for her. She says, ‘Nothing can ever replace the magical time in 2018. I work in education and see the importance of education. I was so fortunate to be in Vesnova in the week that six of the young adults went forward for the first stage of tests in the “Restoration of Rights” initiative which CCI are driving. I witnessed the raw emotion the night before as Helen and Yuilia supported them and worked through their fears. The sheer joy when they all returned successful and the tears in everyone’s eyes as Yuilia danced with Sasha Blank to Rick Ashley’s “never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down”. Secondly, I had the joy of bringing the Life Skills Unit shopping and being treated to a wonderful meal they cooked for our Irish team – such an important step in their development”. The children in Vesnova did not receive any formal education. The pioneering programs on the ‘Restoration of Rights’ and the ‘Life Skills Unit’ funded so generously by Irish donations are making inroads into providing a better life for such vulnerable young people.”

Both Alice and Peter work at TU Dublin, City Campus. While neither have been health care front line workers during the Covid-19 crisis, both have worked through the crisis supporting education. Peter as an IT technician plays an important role in keeping systems running and Alice as a lecturer has worked throughout the shutdown trying to support, as well as educate and assess her students remotely. Alice says, “One of the things that has stuck me is the feeling of isolation felt by young people during the Covid crisis. I hear it in conversations with my Irish students. Reading the words of Sasha on his Facebook posts, one could hear the same struggles. As I read his post of missing the classroom and the activities, I could hear the words ringing in my ears from a phone conversation I had with one of my Irish students. The missing of structure, of normality, of friendship. But the similarities stop at isolation. I think of Roma, he lies immobile and unable to communicate effectively in unit 5, he was born in the same year as Emily. I think of Marina (and her big smiley face) also from Unit 5 and find it hard to believe that she was born less than six months after my Lindsey who is now in 1st year at university. Born in the same years just in a different, contaminated part of the world”.

Alice is listed as a care team volunteer for August 2020 which is so sadly on hold due to Covid. ‘As I looked through my vast library of photos to pick some out for this article I became deeply emotional. I looked at the happiness on the faces of the children and young adults. Simple things that may not mean much to Irish kids can give them so much joy. It is so upsetting that we can’t visit the orphanage or provide the respite by bringing them here. Yesterday, I looked at a photo of Yana, sitting supported by Fergus on the Marley train, and then saw one of her sitting in her chair in the corner of the room in Vesnova. The contrast was stark. They have so little and it is so sad that we can’t be involved for now’.

All of us at CCI are hopeful that restrictions will be lifted soon and that some normality will be restored once we have progressed through the recommended phases. For now, we are reminiscing on the good times and sending our love to our friends in Belarus.