Children of Chornobyl Fund to shut down after 22 years
The charity has provided $63 million of medical assistance since 1990.
Few charities exclusively helping Ukraine can boast a track record that’s longer than the former Soviet republic’s existence as a nation. One of them is the Children of Chornobyl Relief and Development Fund, which will close its doors on Feb. 14.
The date is exactly 22 years since medical supplies were first airlifted and designated for children affected by the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster.
“We’ve ‘run out of steam’ is what [co-founder] Nadia Matkiwsky said,” said country director Alexa Milanytch. “Besides, a charity exists to aid, not sustain. … It’s time for Ukraine to do it itself and there’s absolutely more than enough philanthropy (here) to take our place in Ukraine.”
Nobody knew in 1990 that 32 medical aid cargo flights and 18 sea shipments would follow, worth more than $63 million.
“It was an improvisation,” recalled parliamentarian Volodymyr Yavorivsky, who was aboard the maiden airlift from New York’s JFK International Airport. The then-Soviet deputy is part of the minority faction in parliament as a Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko lawmaker.
The idea started in 1989 when, over dinner, Yavorivsky urged Ukrainian-Americans Dr. Zenon and Nadia Matkiwsky to help save children.
“The Chornobyl catastrophe dominated the evening’s discussion,” said Yavorivsky, who has been the fund’s main official contact throughout the more than 20 years of their cooperation.
They formed the Children of Chornobyl Relief Fund, and together with their Canadian counterpart organization, loaded a Ruslan Ukrainian military cargo plane on Feb. 14, 1990 with $4.5 million worth of humanitarian aid.
“We initially didn’t expect to develop a high-level operation in Ukraine, but Yavorivsky’s plea spurred us to visit Ukraine on a fact-finding mission where we saw the deplorable situation,” Zenon Matkiwsky said.
Hospitals lacked the most basic medical supplies and preventative care wasn’t fully embraced in the country.
Soon, the group realized that relief missions weren’t enough. They established a permanent office in Kyiv in October 1992, just months after the World Health Organization had confirmed an 80-fold increase in thyroid cancer in children exposed to the radioactive fallout from the April 26, 1986 explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant.
With time, the fund crafted a “well-oiled machine” to respond to the specific needs of hospitals, according to director Milanytch.
Over time, streams of volunteers would help the fund’s efforts in the U.S. and Ukraine. The Matkiwskies never took a penny for doing the work, which was supported by a high-profile U.S. board of directors and advisory board in Ukraine.
Millions of dollars were raised from North American Ukrainian diaspora communities, charity foundations and corporations, including in-kind contributions from pharmaceutical companies.
In 1994, the U.S. Agency for International Development praised the group for leveraging $16 worth of aid for every dollar it received in federal grants procuring more than $5 million.
By 2004, the fund had introduced neonatology to 31 partner hospitals and was emphasizing preventative care by purchasing ultrasound machines, as well as other badly needed equipment.
To cope with the spike in birth defects, centers were established in hospitals equipped with respirators and cardiac machines. Surgical programs were developed and conferences were organized in Ukraine to bring U.S. doctors. Books were translated into Ukrainian.
“These programs were mutually determined to prevent infants from prematurely dying,” Zenon Matkiwsky said.
The fund estimates that 43 donated respirators alone have saved 14,700 lives. Milanytch said countless others were saved, but admitted that an impact assessment was never conducted.
Yet the fund was never just about the Chornobyl disaster. Milanytch said the fund provided assistance to physicians and hospitals. “We’re here to save the lives of children. … Chornobyl was just the seed,” said Milanytch.
At the turn of the century, the group increasingly began tapping local funds amid Ukraine’s growing culture of philanthropy. The Victor Pinchuk Foundation has gradually taken over one of the fund’s programs. Eight hospitals were chosen for Cradles of Hope, an initiative to reduce infant mortality rates and improve the quality of medical assistance.
Not only have children’s lives been saved, but the work helped keep people in the medical profession.
Dr. Tamila Kozina, a pediatric cardiologist in Kherson, was on the verge of denouncing the Hippocratic Oath because she didn’t have the right equipment to treat children. “I saw that I couldn’t call myself a doctor if I didn’t have the capability to fulfill my professional duties, that which my patients required,” she said.
It took a $100,000 ultrasound machine and other critical instruments from the CCRDF to make the difference.
Kozina’s Kherson Regional Children’s Clinical Hospital was also chosen for CCRDF’s legacy project. It has piloted a telemedicine project that allows real time, instant exchange of information between medical communities.
In Kozina’s case, she now can conduct an ultrasound of an infant’s heart and have the image projected via the internet to Kyiv’s Children’s Cardiac Center, where a surgeon as well as other specialists can provide instant diagnostic consultations.
“We’re very proud of this project. This is our last gift to our hospitals, 13 were selected,” said Zenon Matkiwsky.
The telemedicine legacy project costs $620,000, $12,000 of which was raised on a Nov. 24 Thanksgiving charitable dinner in Kyiv, its last fundraising event.
But the Matkiwskies, who are of retirement age, said that everything has to come to an end, sooner or later. “After 22 years, people have become much older, the board members are old, it’s time for us to end (the endeavor),” Zenon Matkiwsky said.
“It’s a bittersweet decision that had to be made,” said Milanytch, the group’s last country director.
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