The first time Jennifer O'Dea met Vladimir, a saucer-eyed 7-year-old with cerebral palsy who can't walk or talk, she was surprised when he reached out to touch her. "He took his hand, almost like a blind person, and moved it around my face," she recalls. "He was looking for—I don't know what—love, attachment, human connection."

There's little of that to be found where Vladimir lives: the Vesnova Children's Asylum in the former Soviet republic of Belarus. The facility lies 120 miles northwest of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, and the 128 housed at Vesnova—most with severe disabilities—embody the medical, emotional and familial toll wrought by the April, 26, 1986, nuclear accident.

The explosion, which released hundreds of times the radiation of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, contaminated hundreds of square miles with millions of inhabitants in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Thousands of people have since died of radiation-related illnesses, but the impact of Chernobyl on this current generation of children is still controversial. Though some experts say there is no reliable proof of any link between Chernobyl and the type of birth defects seen at Vesnova, doctors on the ground have seen a jump in a wide range of birth defects and say the right studies simply haven't been done (see box).

Classified as "imbeciles" by the Belarus government, the children of Vesnova are the forgotten victims of that disaster 20 years ago. But O'Dea, a school occupational therapist from Nutley, N.J., and fellow volunteers visiting Vesnova from Chernobyl Children's Project International are determined to change all that. "These children are handled, rather than cared for," says Suzanne P. Reese, an infant massage trainer from San Diego. "There are so many things missing."

O'Dea, 25, who is spending four days at Vesnova, moves from bed to bed in Unit 5: the high-dependency area where most children, unable to move by themselves, spend their days lying on their backs. "Many of these kids would be up and running and sitting at the kitchen table if they had the care and equipment we have at home," she says. Recognizing Vlad from her first visit, in October, O'Dea kisses his head as he breaks into an enormous grin. She then folds a blanket and places it behind him, propping him up as a mother would a 6-month-old. Putting a toy with flashing lights and music in front of him, O'Dea watches as Vlad's eyes light up and he starts to babble. "He can't talk, but he's interested," she tells a visitor. "If he had intensive speech therapy, he could learn an alternative way to communicate, even if not to speak. But not here."

The stimulation O'Dea provides is rare, as most of the 14 overworked government nurses here view their jobs as simply keeping their charges alive. "It's not their fault; that's how they were trained," O'Dea says. During this March visit and an earlier visit last fall, the CCPI volunteers teach nurses the importance of exercising children's limbs so their muscles don't atrophy and touching and talking to them with compassion to boost their spirits. CCPI also provides the asylum with much-needed supplies, however makeshift. From her backpack O'Dea pulls five neck braces she has made by stuffing socks with cotton, and she places one around Vlad's shoulders to help him hold up his head. "What do the nurses think of these?" she asks a translator. "They think they are great, really good," the translator replies, as the nurses come close to inspect. Says Anja Rudinskaja, 45, a nurse who has worked at Vesnova for 28 years, of the volunteers: "They are good people who try to help us, very kind."

Before she begins her morning rounds, Reese, 35, pulls on her husband's old shirt. She walks over to Kathy Ryan, 45, the head of the U.S. branch of CCPI, who is sitting by the bedside of Nastya Gerasimuk, a 4-year-old girl. Nastya is contorted in a fetal position; her eyes stare into space. "Hi, sweetie," Reese murmurs in Nastya's ear and gives her a hug. Next Reese goes to Maxim, 6. Six months ago, when Reese visited last, Maxim, who suffers from cerebral palsy and convulsions, was pale and emaciated with a gaping bedsore from rarely being moved. "He would wail like a siren," says Reese, who started by putting a hand on his shoulder, then stroking his wrist and eventually built up to an hour of massage, a treatment she taught several nurses. "And it worked!" says Reese, happily noting that Maxim's weight has climbed from 17 to 21 lbs.

Gains like that have been hard-won. When Reese and O'Dea visited last fall, they were horrified to see nurses leave children lying in soiled diapers and race to see who could spoon porridge down a child's throat fastest. When O'Dea places Sergey, 8—blind and autistic—into a $200 therapeutic swing CCPI brought in October, she watches his smiles and shouts of "Davai! Davai!" (Russian for "more") with both happiness and frustration. "He needs this twice a day," she says. "When he's left alone, he hits his head on the wall."

The volunteers find hope in small victories. Her first morning there, passing through the units, O'Dea notices that Vlad, Maxim and Marina, a 5-year-old girl whom O'Dea is teaching to walk, all have balls of cotton gauze wedged inside their curled-up hands. O'Dea is delighted: On her last visit, she taught the nurses to use these with children with little muscular control; otherwise their hands would become permanently clenched. The lesson clearly stuck. Reese watches with pride and joy as Sveta, a younger nurse, gives children regular massages. "She does it exactly like I taught her," Reese says.

Planning to return in August, O'Dea wonders what will happen at Vesnova in the meantime. Earlier in the trip, a nurse told her that Vlad had wept when she left the room. "I had mixed feelings," O'Dea says. "I was glad—so he does remember me—but I don't want him to cry." In the end it is Vlad who does the comforting, reaching his hand toward O'Dea's teary face as she prepares to leave him. "I don't know if he was trying to wipe away tears," O'Dea says later, "but it was kind of like we were in this together—like he got it."

Do you know someone working to make a difference in the world? Send suggestions to heroesamongus@peoplemag.com. Please include your name, phone number and return e-mail address. For further information about CCPI, log on to www.chernobyl-international.org.

  • Contributors:
  • Dietlind Lerner/Vesnova,
  • Macon Morehouse/Washington,
  • D.C..