Heart O' Gold

updated 08/25/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/25/1997 01:00AM

AT A GLANCE THEY COULD BE any 50 or so Irish kids, fair, some of them freckled, running sack races and raising holy heck at a July picnic north of Dublin. Look closer, though, and a different picture emerges. They speak not English but Russian. Some of them suffer physical afflictions: Alexei Shmarlovski, 2, has only a right eye. His left was blinded by a baseball-size tumor—benign but dangerously close to the brain—that was removed in February 1996. Vitaly Gutsev, 12, has a useless left arm and runs with a limp. Others have more insidious troubles—thyroid cancer and immune disease. Why are they romping in a park 1,500 miles from home? Sergei Nedloviko, 11, later sums it up: "There's no radiation here."

These are the children of Chernobyl. They all live in the bleak shadow of the nuclear plant near Kiev that exploded in April 1986, exposing more than 4 million people to radioactive fallout and the economic deprivation that followed. The full medical consequences of Chernobyl, which contaminated farmland and water supplies for centuries to come, are unclear, but doctors have noticed drastic health problems among children in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, where countless towns were evacuated and remain hopelessly uninhabitable.

Many Westerners were moved by the plight of the children. For Adi Roche, sympathy was not enough. During the past five years, Roche, 42, founder and executive director of the Chernobyl Children's Project, has airlifted 19 of the most seriously ill or disabled kids to Ireland for long-term care and has placed another 4,000 with Irish families for recuperative summer holidays. "We used to talk about the potential dangers of nuclear power," says Roche. "This was reality—and a chance to respond to a true human tragedy."

The trip to Ireland breathes new life into these children. "After a month we go back and test them," says Dr. Oleg Gordeyev, a pulmonary specialist from the Russian city of Klintsy. "Usually the radiation level drops in half. Some doctors believe a summer in Ireland extends life by two years."

Since 1994, Roche and her CCP volunteers have also driven nine convoys of medicine, food and toys to the grievously depressed Chernobyl region—$12.75 million in aid, all told, more than 12 times the amount offered by the United Nations. Working unsalaried from her home, Roche drives her organization with a zeal expressed—unleashed, really—in bursts of brogue. "I want people to feel uncomfortable—my mission is to break through the complacency," she says. "The children open up so many hearts. They overcome the iffing and butting that paralyze people."

Roche, to be sure, is famously persuasive when it comes to cajoling for donations of manpower, money and materials. "After people meet her, they always end up giving much more than they intended," says Jean Kennedy Smith, 69, U.S. ambassador to Ireland. "They're in—lock, stock and barrel." Indeed, Roche's convoys are a point of Irish pride. Last April the streets of every town from Cork to Dublin were thick with flag-wavers as her 31 ambulances and nine trucks passed through on the first leg of a trek to Belarus.

"She brings a light into the room when she comes in," says Ali Hewson, 36, wife of U2 lead singer Bono and the CCP patron who has helped drive several convoys.

Roche was named an Irish Person of the Year for 1994-95 and European of the Year in 1996. But with a salty tongue and chic attire, she's nobody's plaster saint. "God, I'd die if people thought I was like Mother Teresa," she says. Imagine the good Mother singing up-tempo folk tunes with an amateur girl group called the Bubbles, which is what Roche does in her spare time—scant as it is. "She's got her own solar battery," says Seán Dunne, 48, her husband of 20 years, who supports them both as a music teacher. "If we could harness her energy, we'd get rid of nuclear power overnight."

Surely she'd raise a glass to that. Roche's antinuclear fires were sparked by the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island reactor in Harrisburg, Pa.—where her brother DÓnal lived. "I was to fly out the day after the accident to join them for the birth of their second baby," she says. When she learned they'd been evacuated, Roche stayed home—and went with Dunne to a concert protesting a planned nuclear power station at nearby Carnsore Point. "My whole world changed that weekend," she says. "Seeing Hell's Angels and people doing yoga and eating vegetarian food. I'd never met a vegetarian."

Roche eventually quit her sales job at Aer Lingus and spent most of the '80s as a full-time volunteer for the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, offering her home as headquarters. She was there in January 1991 when a fax arrived from Belarus: "SOS appeal. For God's sake, help us get the children out." The fax was signed by doctors who went on to explain that boys and girls affected by Chernobyl might drastically improve if taken to a healthier environment for even a few weeks. For Roche, the plea was a call to arms. Through CND she brought 45 children to Cork that summer; the next year, Roche traveled to a children's ward in Minsk and saw firsthand what she was up against. "There was a baby with fluid on the brain," she says, verging on tears. "I held him and felt his life draining away."

The experience changed Roche, she says, "to the depths of my being. Before, I would be very bothered about faded curtains or if I didn't have enough Christmas puddings made. I began to say, 'What does it matter if I never wash another potato?' " She returned to the region in 1993 to produce a TV documentary called Black Wind, White Land: Living with Chernobyl, which has aired in 30 countries. "I find the abandoned villages the hardest," she says of her visits. "You go into houses and there's a meal on the table covered with cobwebs, there's a calendar on the wall still saying April 1986." Roche formed CCP in 1992. Two years later she began flying the sickest kids to Ireland for extended care. Her inspiration was Vitaly Gutsev, then 9, paralyzed down the left side from a series of heart attacks and strokes. "He was all purple," says Roche. "His fingers and feet were all clubbed, his lips and eyes were black." Frantically she arranged for him to be sent to a hospital in Cork. Then transferred to Dublin, he improved dramatically after surgery and has returned to Ireland for yearly checkups—and to visit Roche. "Adi is a really good woman—a nice fella," Vitaly, now back in Belarus, says in heavily accented English.

Social obligation was ingrained in Roche from the start. Growing up in County Tipperary, she heard tales of great-great-grandparents who ran a soup kitchen during Ireland's Great Famine that began in 1845. Her parents, Seán Roche, now 82, a retired teacher of the disabled, and his home-maker wife, Christina, 79, worked tirelessly for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, enlisting their four children to help carry clothing, food and coal to the needy. Attending convent schools, Adi, the youngest Roche, was an indifferent student—except in debating class. "Probably that'll see me through to the grave," she says, "the skills of communication and listening, particularly when somebody's saying something totally opposite of you."

At 19, Roche met Sean Dunne in a country churchyard at the wedding of friends. They married three years later. "She ended up almost buying the engagement ring and putting it in my hand," muses Dunne. "What attracted me to her was her sense of purpose." He joins in her activism—serving as national secretary of the CND, which remains based in their cozy brick row house in Cork, sharing space with the Chernobyl project. But Dunne tries to put a lid on shoptalk. "I say, 'No hard questions in the morning,' " he explains. "Otherwise she'd be asking me the meaning of life at 7:30 a.m."

Ironically, the Dunnes are childless—a conscious, if difficult, decision due in part to Roche's own exposure to radiation. "I know friends with their kids and see the wealth that's between them," she says. "There are times I feel a loneliness because of that. But I really would have to live with my conscience if I had brought life into the world and, God forbid, anything had been wrong." Besides, who then would attend to the children of Chernobyl? "It hasn't seemed like a sacrifice at all," she says. "I feel I have enough love to share it around."

RICHARD JEROME
LYDIA DENWORTH in Cork

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