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Girard Gourmet showcasing art from children of Chernobyl

A collection of artwork currently on display at Girard Gourmet could help provide children a respite from their lives in the fallout zone from the Chernobyl disaster.

The art exhibition, which will be up through Aug. 15, benefits the local chapter of the Children of Chernobyl Foundation, a national organization that brings young children from Belarus to the United States for medical attention and a vacation from their difficult lives back home.

An explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine in 1986 resulted in radioactive contamination throughout Europe, but much of the radioactive fallout landed in Belarus. People there still live with the effects of the disaster, and many are in need of serious medical care.

The artwork on display at Girard Gourmet was created and donated by students between the ages of nine and 19 at the School of Art in Minsk. Approximately 50 paintings are donated each year and are judged for quality and originality, with the winning artist receiving an all-expense paid trip to San Diego. The proceeds from the sale of the rest of the artwork go toward bringing the most needy children from the most highly affected region of Belarus to San Diego for a five-week stay with a host family. Nineteen kids will be coming to San Diego this summer.

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Patricia Lundeberg, president of the local chapter of the Children of Chernobyl Foundation, said almost every child who comes to San Diego as part of the program has endured tremendous hardship, with most having lost one or both parents. Lundeberg has hosted the same girl, Kristina, since 1999. She was seven years old when she made her first visit, and her father had just died at the age of 32.

“Her father had just died of unknown causes - it’s often hard to get a definite cause of death because it’s really just a result of Chernobyl, but the country doesn’t want to admit it,” she said. “They were living in a tiny flat of about 300 square feet with no kitchen. That’s how she qualified (for the program).”

The San Diego portion of the Children of Chernobyl program focuses on preventative medicine. Other chapters of the program include one in Kansas, where kids who are handicapped or missing a limb go to receive prosthesis. The Boston chapter takes in kids with cancer, leukemia and other immune problems.

In San Diego, the kids are taken to the dentist for checkups and treatment for cavities.

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“We teach them to floss and to brush properly, making sure they’re taking their calcium, because the kids don’t eat dairy products because they’re contaminated,” Lundeberg said. “The only thing they’ll really eat is ice cream. They’re very wary of cheese and milk.”

The kids also take a trip to the eye doctor. Dr. Edward Brown in Clairemont Mesa gives free checkups and provides the program with six free pairs of eyeglasses each year, which is usually about what the program needs, Lundeberg said.

“An amazing number of the children need glasses, about a quarter to a third,” she said. “That seems a little high.”

Just as important as the medical care, Lundeberg said, are the new experiences the visiting children receive, including learning to swim and ride bikes, as well as trips to destinations such as SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo and Legoland.

But the main attraction for most of the kids is not at an amusement park, Lundeberg said.

“They probably get most excited at going to the beach,” she said. “It’s just an unbelievable dream come true.”

Lundeberg said she has heard from people who doubt whether her program truly does the children any good.

“People ask, ‘Do you think you’re doing these kids a favor, exposing them to America and then sending them back to that awful environment?’ ” she said. “I think any time you give kids a new experience, all it can do is help.”

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She said many of the kids are eager to return home to their families when their stay in San Diego is done.

“Many are happy to go back to their families,” she said. “But there is also a bond with the host family. I’ve seen a lot of kids crying at the airport when it’s time to go home.”

Girard Gourmet is at 7837 Girard Ave. For more information about Children of Chernobyl, including on how to participate as a host family, visit www.givehopesandiego.org.