Host families recall summers with Children of Chernobyl

Yanina, or Yana, was 9 (right) when she came to the United States in 2005 to live with Colleen McCoy and her husband, George Sifkas of East Liverpool. At left, is a recent photos of 23-year-old Yana. Tribune Chronicle / Allie Vugrincic

Colleen McCoy of East Liverpool, a retired teacher, never had children of her own, but for a decade starting in 1998, she was a summertime host mother to Belarusian daughters.

Yulia, who spent seven summers with McCoy and her husband, George Sfakis, was 10 when she first came to the United States from the impoverished country of Belarus, an area that suffered an estimated 70 percent of the nuclear fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in what is now Ukraine.

Yanina, or Yana for short — McCoy’s second Belarusian daughter — was 9 when she came in 2005. Both girls came through the now-discontinued Children of Chernobyl Charitable Fund, which sought to improve the health of children living in contaminated areas through access to medicine and clean air.

The recently released five-part HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” brought the April 26, 1986, disaster back into the public eye — and called up the memories of the more than 250 Belarusian children who spent summers in Ohio and western Pennsylvania in the 1990s and mid-2000s.

More than a decade later, McCoy, now 74, keeps in touch with Yulia and Yana through e-mail and Facebook. Her family paid for both girls to attend college, which McCoy said is much cheaper in Belarus than in the U.S. Yana, 23, is single, an English tutor and in good health.

Yulia, 32, also teaches English and is married with two children, McCoy said.

“Unfortunately she has had thyroid cancer, and she had her thyroid removed. We just heard from her last week that they found more cancer in the tissue around the thyroid area,” said McCoy. Yulia’s mother had the same kind of thyroid cancer, which McCoy said is so common in the area that the scar left behind after a thyroid removal is sometimes called a Belarusian necklace.

McCoy doted on Yulia and Yana when they were children, celebrating “birthdays” with them and Christmas in July. She said both girls learned the word “convertible” early on, as they hadn’t seen the topless cars before.

McCoy said she recalls taking Yulia to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

“When she realized she could keep going back to the ice cream machine, she couldn’t believe it. So she ate five ice cream cones after eating a meal,” McCoy said.

McCoy and Sfakis met fellow host parents Carmen and Becky Amadio on Saturday at former Children of Chernobyl director Patricia Knable’s home to reminisce. When McCoy asked the Amadios if they had had a Belarusian daughter, Becky said, “We still have her.”

“It was the best times of our lives,” Becky said of hosting Nastya, who spent eight summers with them in Boardman starting in 1998. She was 9 when she came — about the same age as the Amadios’ daughters.

“I remember thinking, no matter how far away you are, kids are kids,” Carmen said.

Carmen said Nastya loved to swim and was “mischievous” like any other child.

When Nastya arrived, she communicated through picture books, but after her first summer she began studying English in school.

“She argued with her teacher in school on how to say things, because the teacher wasn’t saying things right,” Carmen said. He said later they realized in school she was learning the Queen’s English.

The Amadio family became involved in Children of Chernobyl when Knable came into their Boardman shoe repair shop seeking a donation for a basket raffle, Carmen said. He had seen Knable on the news before, and the memory struck a chord.

Knable, who hosted five Chernobyl children over the years, said her most prominent memories of the program were scenes from the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, where the children arrived and departed.

“When they came in, they were so little and so afraid,” Knable said. “After they became a part of our families here, you had to send them back.”

Knable said the children often experienced culture shock coming to the U.S.

“They’d never seen grocery stores before,” Knable said. “It made me feel gluttonous.”

Carmen said he recalled Knable’s host daughter, Yelena, thinking one Giant Eagle fed the entire United States.

Carmen said when Becky traveled to Belarus twice to visit Nastya and meet her family, she returned with stories of empty store shelves and crumbling buildings.

Becky sometimes gets texts from Nastya — who is now 32, married, and has two master’s degrees and three children — saying there is little food to go around, Carmen said. Like Yulia, Nastya has suffered health problems related to radiation, including ovarian cancer and now pancreatitis.

When the children came to the U.S., they visited doctors, opticians and volunteer dentists, who did what they could for their health. They were sent back with two 70-pound duffel bags full of medicine, hygiene products like toilet paper, and non-perishable foods like ketchup and peanut butter they could share with their families, Knable said.

McCoy, who went to Belarus four times visiting Yulia and Yana, said the experience of hosting and visiting the girls helped foster an exchange of cultures.

“If nothing else, it was a good international relation, where the kids went home and talked about it and maybe created some desire for improving their country,” McCoy said.