Two simple things in Marian Stapley’s house are constant reminders about why she does it.
There are salt and pepper shakers on her dining room table and a medal on her mantelpiece.
The cruet, nothing fancy, was given to her by a child. The medal was presented to her by a firefighter and reserve soldier.
The fireman, Alexander, stayed with her earlier this year. She knew he had been married for more than 30 years, but she found it strange that he did not wear a ring.
He does have one. It’s rarely, if ever, seen. It lives in a steel box. The last time he wore it was 26 years ago.
If he were to slip it on his finger today his skin would blister, such is the level of radiation it contains.
Those salt and pepper dispensers came from a boy who showed his gratitude to Marian for welcoming him into her home.
He and Alexander have one thing in common – they’re both victims of the world’s biggest nuclear disaster. Chernobyl.
Marian is the chairwoman of the Portsmouth and Hayling Island Link of Chernobyl Children’s Life Line, a group of volunteers who, each June, welcome children from Belarus and Ukraine into their homes for a recuperative break.
It’s hard to believe that the explosion at Reactor Four on April, 26, 1986, happened more than a quarter of a century ago.
But the children born long after its eruption are still living with the poisoned land and food grown in the two countries.
Alexander’s immune system has packed up. He was one of the so-called liquidators sent into the area immediately around Chernobyl to clear up.
One of those areas is the Red Forest. It used to be green like any other, but the pine trees turned ginger-brown after they died following the absorption of high levels of radiation.
Marian says: ‘Alexander and many others felled the trees and dug the trenches in which the trees were then buried. Then he buried the machinery used to fell the forest because it too was so highly contaminated.
‘All he was given was an apron with a little bit of lead in it and a pair of lead-lined boots.’
He stayed with Marian at her home in Blakemere Crescent, Paulsgrove, Portsmouth, in April, because he has spent the past 26 years working tirelessly for the victims of Chernobyl. He wanted to see for himself what people like Marian and her team do for the children.
Marian first took in youngsters seven years ago. She’s not missed a year since. Every year she takes two lads for the whole of June.
‘I’d lost a son who was stillborn. My husband was diagnosed with bowel cancer. I was 39 and he was 49. I knew there would be no more children for us.
‘Two friends of mine answered an advertisement in The News desperately seeking a host family for two girls. I helped out and I realised this was for me.
‘Of course, like everyone else I knew about Chernobyl when it happened, but I had no idea about the effects of radiation which will last for 1,000 years.
‘We take children with limited life expectancies for respite care. I only take boys and they come to us between the ages of 10 and 12 when their thyroid glands are developing because that’s when their immune systems are at their most vulnerable.
‘It’s not meant to be a holiday but of course that’s exactly what it becomes for them. It’s a month away from contaminated air, contaminated food, contaminated water – everything they eat is contaminated.
‘Not only are these kids suffering from radiation but they also suffer from extreme poverty.
‘It’s a very poor rural area for hundreds of miles around the plant and most of the people are farmers and grow their own food.
‘They are so poor that we’ve had several children who arrive with nothing more than the clothes they stand up in. One little boy came with just an asthma pump in a little bag around his neck.
‘The only other thing they do come with are small presents for us.’
Marian points to that cruet set.
She continues: ‘We don’t have to, but we buy them new pyjamas, pants and socks. We collect new clothes for them throughout the year and we give them lots to take home for their families.’
It costs the group between £6,000 and £8,000 to bring about 20 children to the Portsmouth area each June. ‘There are 80,000 who would benefit,’ says Marian who works part-time for revenue and customs in Portsmouth.
During their stay they are taken on trips which include Monkey World in Dorset, Marwell Zoo, the Historic Dockyard, Fareham fire station for a tour and barbecue and Fratton Park.
She has paid out of her own pocket for two trips to Belarus.
‘I wanted to see for myself the conditions the people are living in. Many host families can’t face it and I understand that, but it was something I had to do.’
Now she is preparing for her first visit to the site of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, the most heavily-radiated spot in the world.
Her trip, in September, comes with considerable risk. She will have to wear a boiler suit and face mask which will be destroyed afterwards. She will not be allowed to eat or drink anything while on or near the site and she will have to carry a Geiger counter permanently.
She says: ‘I’m not worried. There are concerns about fertility, but I’m 45 and that’s not a concern for me any more.’
What is concerning her is the group’s lack of funds to bring next year’s group here.
‘All the host families are volunteers and we desperately need money to make 2013’s visit happen. We’ll hold fundraising events but we’ll still be short so any donation, no matter how small, will help.’
· For more information, go to firstname.lastname@example.org or ring Marian on 07952 290124.
Chernobyl remains the world’s worst civil nuclear disaster.
It emerged that design flaws had led to a power surge, causing massive explosions which blew the top off the reactor.
Estimates of the numbers affected vary tremendously. A report in 2005 by the Chernobyl Forum, set up by a number of bodies including the World Health Organisation, the UN and governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, concluded that fewer than 50 people, most of them workers at the plant, died as a result of exposure to radiation.
Most of them died immediately after the disaster, but some survived until as late as 2004. The forum estimates up to 9,000 people could eventually die from radiation exposure – although Greenpeace claims the figure could be up to 93,000.
The contamination spread across neighbouring Belarus, and into Europe. In north Wales, sheep on 350 farms still have to be tested for radiation before their meat can be eaten.
A concrete sarcophagus was hastily built to cover the damaged reactor, but it is weakening over time. It is due to be replaced.
Chernobyl continued to produce electricity for another 14 years, until international pressure forced its closure in 2000. An exclusion zone remains, extending for 18 miles.