not the answer
A contributed column by David Shi.
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Inside Furman is published monthly during the school year by the Furman University Department of Marketing and Public Relations. For story ideas, e-mail John Roberts, editor.
Gills opens home to Chernobyl victims
On a Sunday morning in January 1998, Charlie Gills was seated in his regular pew at North Hills Community Church in Taylors. But he wasn't focused on the sermon.
In his mind's eye, Gills could see a new large-screen television in his den. After the service, in fact, he and his wife, Susan, were going shopping. Nightfall could find him reclined in his easy chair, remote in hand, gleefully scanning more than 100 channels.
At the pulpit, a visitor was telling the congregation about an unusual mission called Chernobyl's Hope. It had been more than a decade since the nuclear reactor explosion, but the area remained devastated.
The citizens of Belarus, a small country just north of Chernobyl that received the brunt of the nuclear fallout, had been exposed to radioactivity 100 times greater than that released by the Hiroshima bomb. Since the accident, the life expectancy in the region had plummeted to 41 years, unemployment had risen to 45 percent, suicides had increased 1,000 percent, and one out of four people were dying of thyroid cancer.
Chernobyl's Hope was an effort to recruit summer host families for children of the region. In America the children, ages 7-12, would receive free medical and dental care. And the time away from their radioactive homeland would increase their life span three to five years, the man said.
The story was a compelling one, but Gills heard only part of it. Would a 27-inch do? Maybe he would splurge on a 32-inch. What was on television tonight?
"And you can bring a child from this poisoned land," the man said in closing his presentation, "for about the cost of a new large-screen television."
"When he said that I really woke up," says Gills, a custodian in Furman Hall. "I knew it was a message for us."
Five months later, the Gills found themselves in the Atlanta Airport holding a poster-size sign with the inscribed names Elena Drazdova and Olga Bednaya.
English-Russian dictionary in hand, Susan Gills welcomed the nervous girls to America. Despite their long journey - the children had to endure a six-hour bus trip to Warsaw, Poland, and a connecting flight in Chicago - Elena and Olga remained glued to the window for the duration of the two-hour drive to Travelers Rest. After all, Atlanta, with its bright lights and skyscrapers, was a far different world than Belinichi, their rural hometown of 10,000.
During the next six weeks almost every day brought with it a new experience - riding a roller coaster at Carowinds, bowling, the buffet bar at Ryan's, swimming at the YMCA, eating watermelon, horseback riding. Most of all, the children seemed to enjoy running around outside. Back home, the deadly radiation drains their bodies of strength.
Few children in Belinichi, explains Gills, have the energy to play tag or throw a ball. Outside of eating - sometimes six pieces of fruit at each sitting - and recreation, the girls had cavities filled, endured medical check-ups at the Children's Hospital and, of course, had their hair styled. Every day was a new adventure.
Olga and Elena returned to Belinichi well rested and 10 pounds heavier. And they returned the following summer - with Irena Paulinich and Tatsiana, Olga's sister.
Last summer, Charlie and his wife traveled to Belinichi. Hosted by the children's families, the Gills took with them food, supplies, donated money and clothing. They also learned first-hand about the lasting effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
"Livestock in the contaminated zone cannot graze close to the ground because they will burn their mouths," says Gills, who retired from Citigroup as a benefits counselor at the Greenville Hospital System before coming to work at Furman.
Currently the Gills, who live on a five-acre lot just a few miles from campus, are getting ready to host four children again - lining up activities, buying summer clothes and setting up appointments with area physicians and dentists. The children are scheduled to arrive in Atlanta June 4.
Charlie and his wife can't wait. Meanwhile, he's still watching his old 19-inch television.
"I bet I've spent the equivalent of 22 large-screen televisions on this project," he laughs. "It looks like I'll never get my big-screen television. But this has been such a blessing to us. We don't regret it. Not for a minute."