I remember that I gently refused all the offers of nicely presented, but homemade food at the table of the always happy “Baba Ganja” in the village of Kupovate. After she insisted, I did eat some of her pickles…hoping the vinegar conservation process killed all the radionuclides. Despite my fear, I could not help myself, I loved the way Baba Ganja was treating us, calling us their ‘kids’, telling us stories and always ready to fill up your plate. A feeling I hadn’t had since my grandma moved from a village to a city, after all the romantic beauty of the countryside together with the unconditional homely atmosphere was gone.
It took me few more times to really taste what was on the table when visiting the Chernobyl settlers and I still struggle with the home made vodka, but the love for them is still there. Back then in 2008, we left Baba Ganja crying when saying goodbye at the threshold of her house. We collected together some money and left it on the table so she would not notice, leaving a bit of help for her after the amazing time during our Chernobyl trip. I knew it wouldn’t get her out of her poor conditions, when her pension only just covers the medication she needs. I wondered what could be a more sustainable help for the remaining Chernobyl babushkas, of which there are almost 150, still living in the closed zone.
On every tour I organise, I make sure we buy products from the local store when going to visit the self-settlers. Also, from the profits I give 10% to charity and I regularly send money to an NGO called Good Angel (Dobry Anjel) that claims to deliver 100% of money raised to people in need, especially sick kids. I never told anyone, I just mentioned it to a friend from Germany and he said, this is something you should tell people when they book your tours, because they are also helping to contribute. It looks like this little piece of info attracted likeminded people – not just to the company, but also as customers. ChernobylX tourists always contribute some Ukrainian hrivnas (local currency) when we visit a Chernobyl babushka.
People in the Chernobyl zone know us, which is why we got our first call for help. In the village of Teremtsi, a horse that was ploughing the fields of all 12 inhabitants, died. And they were left without any help. So we bought them a small tractor to allow them to continue to grow their crops. This turned out to be our first charity tour in 2015, and since then we have organised a charity tour every 6 months. We take volunteers, colleagues and former customers, and we give a hand in the babushkas houses or gardens for a day or two.
Tourists always ask where they can buy a t-shirt or our corporate jackets or uniforms, so we started to design some for them. I mean, they get a t-shirt as a gift anyway, but they are eager to have another cool souvenir from the zone. With CHERNOwear we decided not just to help the local economy by the production but also to directly donate 5% of all sales to the Chernobyl self-settlers. This has allowed us to organise more charity tours and ensures we always have some presents for our dear babushkas ready by Christmas.
Falling in love with the Chernobyl zone makes you see things that are neglected…like noticing a lot of rubbish/trash lying around. So, we organised CLEAN UP Chernobyl in order to clean up Pripyat. After struggling with officials from the zone management about illegal work (even when volunteering) or who were neglecting the fact that there is some garbage, we were able to clean up just few places and paint the entrance to Chernobyl zone. If the conditions or approach of the officials whose job is to keep the zone clean won’t change, we will not be able to continue with this project. However, our American colleagues from Clean Futures Fund did succeed with their efforts to vaccinate and neuter stray dogs in the Chernobyl zone, besides financially, we also help them with some of our work power.
At the same time, back in 2017 we started to work on a great idea for a festival in Chernobyl. Besides the mission of ‘commemoration’, we saw the CHERNOBYLING festival as a way to bring more life to the Chernobyl zone. Not just tourists, we also mean some good entertainment for the workers of Chernobyl and the inhabitants of the nearby city of Slavutych that was built for the evacuees. We have agreed that all the profits will go to the Chernobyl babushkas – so we have organised a special day of helping them, and, at the same time a kids programme in the city of Slavutych on their first day of school. It is a wonderful event to bring people together around the topic of Chernobyl, and gives us a chance to introduce foreigners to the locals, especially the liquidators or workers of Chernobyl.
In 2018, after all the fires in Chernobyl, we realised the forests of Chernobyl zone are diminishing. So we are cooperating with the Chernobyl forestry to plant more trees in the zone. We give our tourists a chance to pick from two types of trees: pine or oak and promise to plant one for them when they leave a Tripadvisor review (never mind how many stars). Soon it will be hundreds of trees that we are planting together with you.
If you have read this far, you are probably curious why we do all this? Is it a marketing trick to emotionally convince people to buy tours? Is it some undercover plan for political ambition? And is it even true?
To me it is simple. I was taught to help people who didn’t have the luck of being healthy, young, able to work, and it’s the same with animals, those who can barely help themselves in the world of humans. Being helpful, and having the capacity to help others, became the corner stone of the ChernobylX team and when you get to know us, you will realise why.
Was this blog some kind of praise to our work? Yes.
The marketing guys told me we do not have our charity efforts summed up and they cannot link to it from their icons.
I hope you liked reading it despite the fact that writing it was not as much fun for me as being with a Chernobyl babushka and helping her in her garden.