THROWING DOWN THE GAUNTLET…
‘I think it would be fair to say that back in 2003 my spiritual life had somewhat reached a plateau,’ said Gerrie when we met on a glorious spring afternoon in a little market town in the Fens earlier this year. Then she corrected herself. ‘Actually it would probably be more accurate to say I was at a place in my Christian journey where the only way was up.’
Together with a group of church friends, I’d arranged for Gerrie to come and speak to an invited audience of local people about a project that was close to her heart. And I was also interested to learn first-hand how the discouragement and disillusionment in her life eight years ago had turned around to produce this dynamic, enthusiastic lady whose passion and love for life – and God – was highly contagious.
Here’s the story of Gerrie’s journey.
Knowing Gerrie was going through a spiritual ‘downer’ a close friend had invited her to attend a Christian conference – something that Gerrie would normally have been the first to sign up for in the past. But not this time. However, not wanting to miss the opportunity of meeting up with her friend who had travelled from overseas to be a delegate herself, Gerrie agreed to meet her at the conference just to catch up. (But made it crystal clear that she would not be attending any lectures.)
Sitting in the adjoining café waiting for the final session before lunch to end – and to meet up with her friend – the voice of one of the key-speakers could be heard quite clearly as she came to the conclusion of her presentation. ‘I challenge each and every one of you ladies sitting here today, to ask God for a passion in your lives,’ were her closing words.
‘Yeah, right,’ thought Gerrie. These were the sort of motivational, ‘onward and upward’ types of lines that would have previously inspired her. But not right now. In fact, they had quite the opposite effect, making her mildly irritated. Annoyed about religion in general, Christianity in particular and at God specifically.
The sea of conversation indicated that the lecture was over, Gerrie’s friend arrived, a good catch-up conversation was had – and the irritating words of the presenter vanished.
As soon as the lunch-break was over, Gerrie headed home leaving all the Christian women behind to go back to listen to more motivational and inspiring lectures. ‘Hmm, certainly not for me,’ thought Gerrie.
Gridlocked and fed up
The northbound M6 is never a particularly pleasurable journey at the best of times, but that particular day the traffic had come to a grinding halt. Nothing moved. For well over an hour, Gerrie sat alone in her car with mile upon mile of stationary traffic in front of her, disappearing into the distance. She started to wish she’d never agreed to make the journey to meet up with her friend at the conference after all. Feeling decidedly fed up by now, and fuelled by the closing comments of the conference presenter that had annoyed her so much, Gerrie blurted out: ‘OK God, I’d like to see how you can give me something in my life that you want me to be passionate about.’ A rhetorical question? Maybe.
Rant over. Traffic cleared. Gerrie arrived home safely and not another thought was given to her challenging comments – to the Almighty – made in the heat of the moment.
A couple of days later the phone rang and Gerrie spoke to one of her friends, Liz, who she hadn’t been in contact with for a while. (And indeed since that day back in 2003, Gerrie has only met up with Liz one more time.) Liz told Gerrie that she was to become a ‘relative’ to two small boys from a place called ‘Belarus’. She explained that as a result of the nuclear power station accident in nearby Chernobyl 17 years earlier, children were still suffering terribly from the effects of radiation. Liz had become involved in a locally-run branch of a charity called ‘Chernobyl Children’s Life Line1’ and was attending a ‘fun day’ to raise money for the organisation. And there would be children from Belarus at the event who were over for a respite holiday in the UK.
(Liz’s two little boys would be part of this group.)
‘Oh, that sounds interesting,’ Gerrie commented to Liz, and then added, ‘it would be nice to meet them.’ But she could never have imagined in her wildest dreams how these casual – perhaps even insincere – words would change her life.
Three days later Gerrie was on her way over to meet Liz and spend a couple of hours with a group of forty-eight ‘Chernobyl Children’ who were over for a month. It was explained to Gerrie that time spent in the UK for these youngsters, in clean, fresh air, eating unpolluted foods and generally ‘having fun’ would, on average, prolong their lives by up to five years.
Gerrie had originally planned to stay for just a couple of hours. The thought of spending any longer with four dozen eight to ten-year-old, sickly children who didn’t speak English was not her idea of a great day out. ‘I guess I was there out of support for Liz and being a little inquisitive too. In fact, although I’ve brought up children – and now grandchildren – of my own, and of course love them to bits, I’m not really a very child-orientated person,’ said Gerrie. But despite her reluctance to stay any longer than was seen as an ‘acceptable visit’, she ended up staying the rest of the day!
Reaching a turning point?
The hours just flew by. Gerrie described the children as being ‘absolutely adorable’. Although finding themselves in a strange country with a language they didn’t understand and people they didn’t know, they were magical, obedient and friendly. Some of them were painfully thin whilst all of them were ashen-faced and experiencing a range of health problems. But their smiling faces and squeals of joy and laughter as they played made them appear like any happy and healthy youngsters enjoying a sunny summer afternoon in the park.
But something happened in those few, short hours. Something very special. An experience that would change Gerrie’s life – forever.
‘I experienced a range of emotions that day. Watching the children play – and playing with them too. I had so much – they had so little. And yet there they were playing happily together without any apparent cares in the world. I kept thinking to myself, “I just can’t walk away from these children – I must do something.”’
A seed had been sown. And here’s what happened next and how Gerrie and I had come to meet eight years later in a sleepy market-town in Cambridgeshire as a direct result of her visit with the Belarus children that afternoon.
After that first encounter with those ‘magical’ children from Belarus, Gerrie had been so moved by the experience that she decided to get involved with the charity. Her initial contact with the Caernarfon branch of Chernobyl Children’s Life Line found her agreeing to help fundraise the £8002 in air fares it would cost to bring two little girls over from Belarus on 6th February 2004. And she also agreed to find a suitable host family in the area – for a month –for the two eight-year-olds too. Quite a challenge!
Amazingly the fund-raising target was met and indeed exceeded by the generosity of friends and family when they heard of her newfound project. But the sourcing of a host family wasn’t so easy – no-one could be found. Refusing to be discouraged at the prospect of not being able to give two little girls a trip of a lifetime, despite having the funds, Gerrie found herself agreeing to take both girls into her and her husband’s own home. This time the question to herself was, ‘What have I just agreed to?’
Arrivals from Belarus
Finally the day arrived when the two little girls, Anastasia and Kristina, arrived in the UK with the group of eight other children from Belarus. Gerrie and her husband, Chris, had arranged to meet their bus at nine o’clock at night at its stop just twenty minutes from their home. Despite the 17-hour journey, and the fact that both Anastasia and Kristina were both nervous and exhausted, they greeted their new ‘relatives’ with a big hug and a warm smile. It was then that Chris leaned across and whispered to Gerrie, ‘I have a feeling this will be life-changing!’
Their stay with Gerrie was to be a month of happy memories and experiences for not only the two girls, but Gerrie and her husband too. In fact, as she recalls that first experience as a host family for the children from Belarus, she remembers the events with such excitement and enthusiasm as if they happened only yesterday. Making a huge impact on her, and very much shaping her future involvement with Chernobyl Children’s Life Line, Gerrie summarises that initial hosting experience in a very emotional way. ‘These little girls waltzed into our home and into our hearts and we loved them totally. We knew that we would care for them, but we didn’t expect to love them as we did.’
The month flew by with trips out to the seaside, zoo; there were ice creams, chips, and a whole host of healthy meals the girls loved – and often helped prepare. But all too soon it was time for them to return home. When they had gone, Gerrie found a letter they had left for her and Chris. It read:
Dear Mama Gerrie and Papa Chris
We love you and will love you for the rest of our lives. Thank you very much and please don’t forget us.
Love Anastasia and Kristina.
It was then that Gerrie realised that her ‘throwing down the gauntlet’ in challenging God to give her a passion had been answered. Big time.
An all-consuming passion
Since that time Gerrie’s life has never been the same again. It seems every waking hour is consumed by her voluntary work with Chernobyl Children’s Life Line. She’s established – and now runs – the North Wales Coast branch of the charity and is responsible for the fund-raising activities and trip arrangements as well as continuing to host children in her own home too. In fact, since that first visit by Anastasia and Kristina back in 2004, Gerrie and her husband have hosted a further 14 children from Belarus in their home. And that’s as well as personally funding and making three trips over to Belarus and staying with the families in the villages. During these visits they can see first-hand the conditions in which the families live, the needs of the children and the positive contributions the charity is making in the lives of the children of Belarus.
As I write, I have just spoken to Gerrie who excitedly tells me that she is putting the final arrangements together for a month’s worth of activities and trips for a group of children due to arrive from Belarus in June.
And it’s this vision, passion and relentless enthusiasm that Gerrie exudes that motivated me to ask her to give a presentation to a church group in Cambridgeshire. She arrived with two 10-year-old girls from Belarus – Katya and Nastya – on the last day of their month-long visit to the UK.
As soon as she started speaking, Gerrie had the audience hanging onto every word. There were gasps as the pictures of the sarcophagus of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant were shown and described as ‘unstable’. Sighs of disbelief when photos of the living conditions for many of the villagers where Katya and Nastya live were displayed on the screen. Hoots of laughter when she described how she tactfully managed to ‘reassign’ the gift of two live geese from grateful parents on a recent trip to Belarus. And tears when she told how the majority of children are robbed of their childhood to become carers to sick parents suffering any one of a number of diseases – mostly cancers –whilst others have to look after younger siblings.
Although there were less than 20 people who had turned up to hear Gerrie’s presentation, she phoned me with her usual, bubbling-over excitement the next day to tell me that God had blessed abundantly – as he always did – and she’d walked away that afternoon with ‘almost enough money to bring two more children over to the UK’. (That’s £1,000 to you and me.)
Referring back to how her journey began, I asked her if she ever truly imagined she would have this great passion for a cause in her life. She replied: ‘Never in a million years could I have ever imagined feeling so passionate and absolutely consumed with such a cause – and one which I truly believe was God-given. And I’m feeling even more passionate – and positively challenged – about it today than I did all those years ago when I was first “bitten with the Chernobyl Children’s Life Line bug”.’
But I guess that’s what happens if you throw down the gauntlet to God!
25 years ago…
Tuesday, 26 April 2011 was the 25th anniversary of when the world witnessed the worst nuclear accident ever known to mankind. The results of the events that happened in Chernobyl in 1986 would affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people – and of future generations – living in the fallout zone caused by the explosion of one of the nuclear reactors at the power station.
Unlike the more recent catastrophe caused by an earthquake and subsequent tidal waves that ripped through and damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan earlier this year, the Chernobyl disaster occurred through human error when an experiment went horribly wrong. The resultant fallout of radioactive material was 90 times greater than that of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined – 70% of which fell on Belarus. Some of the highly carcinogenic radioactive particles have a ‘half-life’ of 24,000 years.
Children are particularly susceptible to radiation-induced illnesses such as leukaemia, thyroid and other cancers. Babies are still being born with serious deformities attributed to the accident.
Prior to April 1986, Belarus had a stable economy and was known as ‘the breadbasket of Russia’. Since the Chernobyl disaster the economy has collapsed, and radiation has contaminated the food-chain in Belarus. For the majority of people in the area, unable to afford highpriced imported foodstuff, they have no alternative but to eat crops grown in contaminated earth, fish from polluted rivers and wash and cook in water contaminated by the radioactive fallout.
And closer to home, as recently as March last year it was being reported1 that farmers were still having their livestock tested for radiation poisoning 24 years after the Chernobyl disaster. At that time, the number of sheep under restriction in Cumbria was 6,600 compared to 867,000 immediately after the disaster.
 Source: The Westmorland Gazette, 15 March.
The Chernobyl Children’s Life Line (CCLL)
The CCLL was established to look after children affected by the after-effects of the Chernobyl disaster.
They organise respite breaks to the UK where the children’s immune systems will have a chance to be boosted through breathing fresh air, eating unpolluted foods and receiving both medical and dental care during their month-long stay.
It is estimated that their stay will prolong their lives by up to five years. Since the charity was set up in 1991, some 43,000 children from Belarus have visited Britain.
For more information on Chernobyl Children’s Life Line visit their website: www.ccll.org.uk.
To contact Gerrie directly, email her at: email@example.com, or write to: 6 Aber Road, Prestatyn, LL19 7HL
 The cost for airfares and associated travel costs to bring each child across from Belarus is now £500.