Belarusian children get dental checkups here
October 22, 2008
It isn’t surprising to hear that children sometimes get scared about going to the dentist. What is surprising is when it causes children to feel embarrassed rather than scared.
Children from Belarus entered a dentist’s office suffering from chronic oral pain, and some were too ashamed to smile.
This summer, Dr. Richard Burkholder, of Klahanie Family Dentistry in Issaquah, and a group of volunteers from Issaquah joined the nonprofit For the Children of the World to help give children from Belarus a brighter future.
Many children living in Belarus suffer from poor health due to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion in 1986. Since then, radioactive fallout has directly impacted children’s growth and development, as well as their environment.
“When I discovered the need for these children, I was eager to get involved,” Burkholder said.
This year, he and several colleagues provided dental screenings and X-rays for children from Belarus.
This was Burkholder’s first year with the organization, but he has always enjoyed volunteering dental care for children in need. He said he feels it is very rewarding and an important aspect of his life.
“Passing the baton of knowledge for prevention is very gratifying, as well as knowing you have had a part in improving the health of these otherwise compromised young people,” he said.
Elizabeth Tennison, director of the children’s organization, said she is extremely happy the children could receive a dental screening, as well as medical screenings this year. These initial screenings are very helpful for follow-up visits, she said.
“They already have X-rays and diagnoses — shortening the visits and time spent with other pro bono dentists,” she said. “This reduces the cost to the dentist and the discomfort to the child.”
The organization has been bringing children from Belarus to Seattle for the past 13 years. The children spend six weeks in the U.S., participating in many fun activities and getting a variety of health care needs taken care of.
“Six weeks in a noncontaminated environment allows the immune system to flush out damage from radiation exposure, allowing each child the possibility of a healthier and longer life span,” Tennison said.
Anya Rydkina, now 23, has been involved with the program for the past 14 years as a child, chaperone and translator.
“It was later that I began to realize how much going to Seattle influenced my life,” she said.
Rydkina is now a teacher in a village about 18 miles from Chernobyl. Due to teaching in this contaminated area, she often suffers from headaches and extreme tiredness, but she said she always feels better after visiting Seattle.
“Every time I come back to Belarus from the States, I feel healthier — not too tired, nothing bothering me and no headaches,” she said.
She said she experiences a lot of joy returning to Seattle, especially when watching other children experience similar feelings and thoughts as she did.
“The children get on the bus, shy and serious,” she said. But “on the way back to Belarus, you then see how they’re smiling, laughing, sharing stories, talking about their future.”
During the program, children are placed with home-stay families. These families provide an important opportunity for the children to experience a whole new world of relationships, Rydkina said.
One of those families is the McManuses — Karen and Rich and their three children, of Issaquah. They hosted Sasha for three years in a row.
“Adding a child to your family, even for a short period of time, is a challenge for everyone,” Karen McManus said. “But the growth and understanding that you and your family gain is well worth it.
“We had a chance to see things through Sasha’s eyes, like seeing the ocean for the first time, or a grocery store that is overflowing with food.”
Tennison said she hopes that many more Issaquah families will continue to want to be involved in the program.
“Not only has this experience been rewarding for the kids, but for the families, too,” she said.
But the future of the program may be in jeopardy because of an incident with a different organization in California.
Since August, all programs out of Belarus have been shut down. A girl who was meant to return there with her group instead decided to stay on in California. Officials are now worried that other children won’t want to return.
According to Tennison, if the 17-year-old girl doesn’t return to Belarus by Dec. 26, when her visa expires, children from Belarus may no longer be able to visit the U.S.
“If she does return in December, with negotiations and new terms under way, we hope to resume regular hosting from Belarus next summer,” Tennison said.
In the meantime, nearly 80 young people from Belarus returned from the Seattle area healthier and happier because of the efforts of people here.
Rebecca Steele is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.