As chairwoman of the Portsmouth and Hayling Island Link of the Chernobyl’s Children Life Line, Marian Stapley thought it appropriate to see where it all began.
She visited Ukraine last September, spending a week with families living nearby and seeing for herself the devastation the power plant explosion caused.
Travelling from Kiev to Koreston, down to Chernobyl and then onto Borodanka, Marion, from Blackmere Crescent, Paulsgrove, said she received a warm welcome from officials and the locals.
‘This trip was so rewarding because you realised just what the children and their families are going through,’ she says.
‘I was asked if I wanted to go by people who work for the charity; to visit the very place where it all started and I agreed.
‘People called me mad but for me it was important to see it first-hand.
‘I had seen pictures but I wanted to see the villages and the power plant.’
Marian stayed 50 miles from the power plant, just 20 miles from the edge of the disaster zone.
She adds: ‘There is contamination no matter where you stay in that region.
‘But there is a 30-mile radius that is too dangerous to go in without protection and we even had to change vehicles so we wouldn’t take radiation back with us.
‘It was things like that which really hit me.’
Marian visited the nuclear plant where the disaster happened and she said it was surreal.
‘It was a wish I wanted to fulfil and I did. I remember standing there thinking, this is where it all started.
‘It was a very emotional day.’
On her way through to the power plant, Marian stopped off in Pripyat; one of the evacuated villages just miles from Chernobyl.
The village housed a disused fairground due to open five days after the disaster, churches, schools and a concert hall.
For Marian, it was frightening travelling through the village and she was astounded how people who lived there managed to move on.
She says: ‘The village was all overgrown by a forest but you could see the houses between the trees.
‘I noticed that a lot of them had been looted and had their doors and windows missing but the tour guides said the families themselves had taken them.
‘They had come back after being evacuated to grab as much as they could for their new homes because they didn’t have a chance to grab personal possessions at the time.’
As well as visiting the site, Marian also visited families and officials who experienced the meltdown.
She was invited to the Chernobyl Heroes presentation evening which rewards men and women who helped through the disaster.
This included firefighter crews from nearby villages and police officers who helped with the evacuation.
Marian also spoke to the men who had to go into the Red Forest and bulldoze it all.
She adds: ‘The Red Forest was one of the most contaminated areas in Ukraine.
‘The men told me how they had to go in and knock down all the trees because of fears they would contaminate the water supply in the ground.
‘It was a massive job as they had to bury it all 15 feet under sand and then do the same to the machinery so the contamination wouldn’t be transferred. It was an honour to get involved with the Chernobyl Heroes.’
Marian also visited the families of the children she provides respite care for.
The children spend four weeks in Portsmouth as a break from their contaminated air, water and food.
Marian acts as a host family and cares for a few of the children when they visit.
While in Ukraine, she went to Borodanka where children she has looked after live.
‘The families I visited were all so lovely and appreciative of what I do for their children,’ adds Marian.
‘But it is amazing what they do because they trust me with the most important things in their lives.
‘To hand someone else your child for four weeks is incredible and I wanted to show them how much I care.
‘I spent time at their schools also and they enjoyed showing me around.
‘It was also hard seeing where they live because it is hardly anything compared to what we have.
‘The area is full of extreme poverty and it is quite shocking. There are parts of Russian and Ukraine that have money but we didn’t visit those places.
‘We stayed at little villages with nothing. It is the same with their schools.
‘They are very old-fashioned with a small desk and chair per child and a blackboard. It was very similar to our Victorian schools.
‘They only have the big, box, old-fashioned computers at their school which were donated a couple of years ago through the charity but they really appreciate them.
‘It is nice to see that we can help them out.’
When the children visit Portsmouth, Marian likes them to try different things so they get the full experience.
She says: ‘Where they have so little, I like to give them a range of things to do when they come over here.
‘And, now I have visited Chernobyl and seen how they live, I will consider new things to do with them over here.’
Although it was an emotional visit for Marian, she is already looking forward to her next one.
She adds: ‘I went to Belarus a couple of years ago and that trip was very different to the one I did last September.
‘I met more officials and even the Mayor of Koreston this time.
‘But these sort of trips are great because it means I can go to schools and tell them of my experiences. As the chairwoman, I feel responsible to see what it going on.’
Marian is always looking for host families to look after the children from Chernobyl when they visit Portsmouth.
For more information visit the website at phil-ccll.org.uk