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U.S. students aid Chernobyl victims

Washington, April 18 (RFE/RL) - American high school student Ruth Vega does not just learn about the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster from her schoolbooks, she tries to help its victims.

Vega is one of 19 students who will fly today from her high school in the northeastern U.S. state of New York to Belarus on a 12-day trip to deliver medicine, clothes, and toys to the children affected by the nuclear disaster.

While in Belarus, the students are also to help present some 5 million dollars worth of medical supplies given to Belarus by the U.S. State Department.

Don Cairns, a social studies teacher at Ramapo High School in Spring Valley, New York, which is co-sponsoring the students' trip, says the young people are going because they are "trying to make a difference in the world." Cairns is also president of the Ramapo Children of Chernobyl Fund, another co-sponsor.

The student trip, an annual event for the school, was inspired by a student trip Cairns led to Ukraine in April, 1986; the trip was interrupted by the Chernobyl accident. Cairns and his students had to be evacuated to Finland and headed back to the U.S. on the first available flight.

Cairns says he and his students returned to their school without suffering any ill effects from the accident, but they were concerned about the local children left behind and never forgot them.

The school's humanitarian efforts began in 1990. Cairn says a friend in Belarus told him that many of the children in the area desperately needed vitamins. So Cairns mobilized the the community of Spring Valley - located near New York City - and raised 35,000 dollars worth of vitamins and medical supplies.

"After that, it just seemed to grow like a snowball going down a hill," Cairns says, describing the effort.

According to Cairns, the center of fund-raising is the high school. Almost all the students participate in the effort, he says. The students sponsor golf tournaments, bake-sales and sell candy. Local pharmaceutical companies donate medicine and supplies.

But only a small group of students is selected to make the annual visit to Belarus.

This is the second year that Vega will be making the trip. She says that each time she had to get two letters of recommendation from her teachers, promise to raise the money to go to Belarus by herself and write an essay saying why she wanted to go. Having a talent for singing, dancing or playing a musical instrument is considered a plus, says Vega, since the students entertain children in hospitals and in schools with skits and songs. Vega is in the choir.

When asked what she wrote in her essay this year, Vega says, "I wrote that I enjoyed going over there (last year), that I still want to get that sense of fulfillment and that I loved it over there."

Vega adds that she raised the 1,000 dollars needed for each excursion by selling candy and cheesecake and saving her own money.

Cairns says that this year, the students will perform a 30-minute 1950's rock-and-roll show with dancing, singing and costumes. The group has been invited to perform at hospitals, schools and even the Foreign Ministry. The students will also meet with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka.

Vega says that the students learned a few songs in Belarussian so that the local children can sing along. Vega says that this often helps ease some of the nervousness on both sides.

"At first some of the kids are scared because they have never seen Americans before," Vega acknowledges. "And some of us are scared, too, because we have never traveled outside of the country."

Vega says that it is all worth it when she sees the smiles of the children, especially when she hands out stuffed animals. This year the children of Spring Valley and a local toy store donated over 1,000 stuffed animals for distribution to sick Belarussian children.

"I think the best medicine we bring, really, is our students themselves," says Cairns. "They are young people who are excited, idealistic and feel that they can make a difference in the world today."

He adds: "We have a global approach to the world that we not only talk or read about problems, but we actually try to do something about it. Education is not only imparting knowledge to the mind, it is also teaching the soul."