Traci Ofstad faced a decision last March. She could buy a new sofa or host a child from Belarus.
Either way, the costs were about equal.
She chose the latter option, paying for 12-year-old Volha Zhyhar to visit the Northshore area for a six-week health respite.
“I figured we could add years to this girl’s life or buy a piece of furniture,” she said.
Two things are common in Belarus: poverty and radiation exposure.
Radiation exposure comes as a result of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident, which took place in neighboring Ukraine.
Most estimates show that Belarus took on up to 70 percent of the fallout from that disaster.
This, coupled with poverty and the country’s post-Soviet health system – considered to be decades behind most of the modern world – have lead to malnourishment and weakened immune systems for children living there.
It’s a condition known as “Chernobyl AIDS.”
One study from endocrinologists at the University of Washington indicates that six weeks out of a radiated zone can prolong the life of a child by as many as 10 years.
The Renton-based non-profit For the Children of the World is working to bring that luxury to as many kids as possible.
The group arranges for Washington families to host Belarussian children – 79 of them this year – to enjoy uncontaminated air, nutritious food, and American health services.
Hosting costs between $1,100 and $1,500, depending on the year, with the funds going toward transportation, visas, and interpreter fees.
Doctors typically donate medical and dental expenses.
Traci was on the verge of buying a burgundy leather sofa last March when For the Children sent an e-mail to notify her that there weren’t enough host families for this year’s program.
She and her daughter, 12-year-old Cecily, had inquired about the organization after discovering it through a television news story.
Cecily, an only child, became adamant about participating.
“I thought it would be fun, like having a sister,” she said.
Traci had some reservations.
“It sounded like a really great program, and I wanted to do it, but I didn’t think we could swing the funds,” she said. “Plus there’s the issue of what I do when she gets here because I’m a single mom.”
The Ofstads decided to give it a try, even though their living-room couch was on its last legs.
“So many times, we donate to organizations but never see the end result, and we sometimes don’t know if the help even reaches the people who need it,” Traci said. “With this we get to make a significant impact on someone’s life. It is pretty cool, and as a mom, I would appreciate someone doing this for my child.”
Zhyhar came to town on June 14, and has since visited most of the usual Seattle landmarks – the Space Needle, Pike Place Market, and the Woodland Park Zoo.
She claims one of her favorite experiences was visiting the Wild Waves theme park in Federal Way.
Bothell dentist Jon Dallman also helped Zyhar by giving her a routine dental check-up, cleaning her teeth, and filling eight cavities for no charge.
Zhyhar shared her impressions of the United States with help from an interpreter.
“Everything is so nice looking,” she said. “Houses are neat looking, roads are nice, everything is orderly, and there are no messes.”
“Everyone smiles and talks to me” she added, noting that people do not chat with strangers or smile much in Belarus.
Zhyhar has studied English in her native country for two years, but she isn’t fluent with the language yet.
For the Children provides only six interpreters for the 79 children it sent to the U.S., and they’re typically only available during medical visits.
Cecily and Zhyhar have learned to communicate using charades, and it’s helped them form a friendship despite the language barrier.
“They laugh and joke around, just like sisters,” Traci said. “You wouldn’t even know Volha doesn’t speak English.”
Zhyhar participated in her first American Independence Day celebration in Bellevue, viewing Eastside and Seattle fireworks from a high-rise in the downtown area.
“It was a great Fourth experience,” Traci said.
Zhyhar is also participating in the Northshore YMCA’s Summer Enrichment Program. She received scholarship support to attend the camps, which include games and field trips through a partnership with National Geographic.
“This is a wonderful example of communities and organizations coming together on behalf of the well-being and health of a young girl,” said YMCA spokeswoman Christine Howeiler.
• Visit www.fortheworldschildren.org for more about the For the Children of the World.