SALEM, Ohio – Helping the orphans of Belarus and Russia has become a tradition for students at United Local Junior High in Columbiana County.
The Friends From Afar project started in 1995 when the seventh- and eighth-grade students learned about the Chernobyl orphans through their teacher, Dianna Rickard. Rickard has served as a “host mom” for healthy children from Belarus through the Salem-based Children of Chernobyl program (see related story). However, the Belarussian government does not permit its orphans to leave the country for a chance of a prolonged life.
Rickard said while she was telling her students about the Children of Chernobyl program, a student named Terry Martin asked, “What about the orphans?”
Martin’s four-word question set a new project in motion. The United Local students learned that the orphans, many of whom suffer from leukemia and other illnesses, had to play with twigs in contaminated soil because they did not have any toys.
Rickard said Martin again made a profound statement: “American kids in need have all kinds of resources for obtaining help, but those kids in Belarussia only have us.”
Barbies and cars.
With the end of the school year fast approaching, the United Local students set out to collect toys to send to the orphans “that the world forgot.” That first year, the students collected 350 toys, mostly Barbies for the girls and die cast cars for the boys, and sent them to a single orphanage with Americans who visited Belarus.
Since 1995, with the support of churches, organizations and individuals, more than 30,000 items have gone to orphanages in Belarus and Russia. Over-the-counter medications and hygienic supplies were added to the toy collecting.
No one could predict what would happen next. The very same Ohio boy who was so concerned about the orphans in Belarus died of leukemia at age 17, just six months before graduation at United.
“Friends From Afar stands as a legacy to Terry Martin,” said Rickard. “There are 53 orphanages in a country the size of Ohio and Indiana combined, and because of Terry’s vision, we are helping all of them.”
The focus of United Local’s latest collection has gone from toys to hats. The children of Belarus love American baseball caps and the Friends from Afar group has set a goal of collecting 1,000 new baseball caps by November.
“Caleb Zehentbauer, a former student, said that all farmers have hats, and we could collect all kinds from them,” said Rickard. “So many of the best ideas come from our students, from Terry to Caleb. They have dedicated themselves to helping these less fortunate children.
“Our United Local students know how fortunate they are to have the opportunities that they do.”
Drop boxes for hats have been placed at Farm and Dairy offices in Salem, Gause Equipment in Guilford Lake, CT Farm and Country in Salem, C-S Canfield Equipment in Canfield and Unkefer Feed and Supply in Washingtonville.
The post offices in Hanoverton, Kensington and Winona are also offering drop boxes.
Other items such as hygienic supplies, over-the-counter medications, dolls, makeup and cars are needed and may be placed in the drop boxes.
“We haven’t gotten a Barbie in months, and we’re not sure what we will be able to offer the girls,” said Rickard. “Children’s Tylenol is a godsend to those children. Many of the children live in pain.”
The hats and other items will be delivered to the orphans in November by the Youngstown State University Protestant Campus Ministry led by Rev. Kathy Adams.
Additionally, the students are inviting their peers to create a “Buddy Box.” When students get new school shoes this fall, they are encouraged to fill it with supplies for a same sex child. If the students include their name, age and address, a United a student will send them a note of thanks. The Buddy Boxes may be mailed or placed in one of the drops.
Monetary donations or requests for information can be made to Friends From Afar, c/o Dianna Rickard, 12706 West South Range Road, Salem, OH 4460; or phone 330-332-8482.
All monies will be spent by students on needed items. Receipts will be mailed upon request and copies of orphan photos with toys can be sent if requested. A tax exempt number can be provided to companies that make a substantial donation.