“THAT little blind girl will haunt me for life.”
Those are the words that Patricia Messinger wrote in a notebook 20 years ago when she was reporting from Belarus for her radio programme on C103.
Little did she know then how her journey — and that blind little girl — were going to alter the course of her life.
It was 1999 when Mallow-based Patricia was approached by local builders who requested that she accompany them to report on their project to refurbish an orphanage in Volozhin, along with an institution for special needs kids called Novinki in Minsk. The orphanage housed children that had been coming to Mallow in the summer for rest and recuperation, so the builders had got to know them and wanted to do something to help.
Patricia believed her radio content would be all about burst pipes and the challenges of the build, but her visit was to take a different turn, as she hooked up with Adi Roche of Chernobyl Children International, going around to various different orphanages in Belarus, the country most affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986.
“On my first day I went into Novinki and there were little children running around and we were handing out buttons,” recalls Patricia. “I remember there was what I thought was a little boy and he went to the corner and was very carefully balancing against the wall.”
When Patricia asked what he was doing and why he wasn’t clamouring for chocolates like the others, she was told that, despite the shaved head, it was actually a girl called Marsha and because she was blind she had developed her own strategies for when things got boisterous around her.
“They said when all the kids were running around they would bump into her and knock her over so she had worked out, ‘If I find the corner of the room and if anyone bumps into me, I’m not going to fall very far’. I remember thinking ‘what great intelligence’ but also I thought it was the most heart-breaking thing.”
The little girl who looked like she was 18-months-old was actually eight years of age.
“I couldn’t get over how small she was. I picked her up and I was giving her the buttons and she was playing with my earrings and I just remember being heartbroken by this little girl.”
That was the meeting that prompted Patricia to write that haunting line in her notebook, a notebook she still has to this day.
“I came home believing that I would never go back to that country again. I was so devastated by what I saw, but it just got under my skin and into my heart.”
In fact, she went back four times over the next two years, each time returning to Novinki to check up on Marsha.
“I remember thinking, ‘She’s getting smaller and smaller’. You could almost see her fading in front of your eyes.”
When Patricia was involved in bringing a group of boys with cerebral palsy to Ireland for the summer of 2001, she saw an opportunity to request that Marsha come too. The children stayed for two months in a house in Carlow, with Patricia travelling up every weekend to visit.
“One weekend I said to Brendan, my husband, ‘I think I’ll bring Marsha back with us next weekend and let her stay for the week’. That was on July 29 — which happened to be the tenth anniversary of the death of my mother — when Marsha came to stay with us for a week, and she’s stayed ever since.”
Of course, it wasn’t that straightforward. The couple first had to navigate their way through the Irish side of the adoption process, finally getting the green light.
Then, on April 27, 2004. they stood before a judge in Belarus and poured their hearts out as to why Marsha should be their daughter — and thankfully the judge agreed.
It hadn’t been something that was previously on Patricia’s horizon, with her fulfilling career and her son Dave reared at that point.
“Suddenly I was the mother of a special needs child — but we fell in love with this very precious little girl,” she says.
Marsha, who is deaf blind and non-verbal and attends St Joseph’s in Charleville, is 26 now — although still looks much younger — and is thriving in her happy home.
Last month marking the 20th anniversary of her first trip, Patricia returned to Belarus with a group of Mallow women, Mary Attridge, Geraldine O’Sullivan (both godparents to Marsha), Joan Behan and Annie Connolly, all of whom had hosted children from the radiation-stricken country over the years. Also accompanying them was Louise Hickey on her first trip to Belarus, who played with those children when she was growing up and was keen to re- connect with them again.
The women did a modest amount of fund-raising before they departed but covered all their own expenses themselves. Any money raised was to provide for people they would meet out there.
“We had the bones of €6,500 going out and it was fantastic the way we were able to spread it around. We went into one baby home and asked what they needed, which was clothing and toys. Any of the children that we met on the trip, we bought some toys for them. And my God, the reaction of the children! It filled your heart to see a child react to a teddy bear. All of us said, ‘Our children have so much and these children have so little’.
“We got rubles, the Russian currency, and gave each child in the homes money to buy sweets; the equivalent of about a tenner. And again, their reaction to getting the money, it was heart-warming to see it.”
After Marsha’s adoption in 2004, Patricia had returned to Belarus in 2005 and 2006 but never since, so returning after a 13-year gap was emotional, especially when she found the adult institution housing Marsha’s old friends.
“I was very emotional going in there because I suddenly realised if we didn’t get her out that’s where she would have been. Although my own doctor reckons she wouldn’t still be alive; that she only had three to four months left in her because she was so underweight.”
There were other sad scenes for the women to see on their trip, as Patricia outlines: “There’s one young girl who’d been coming to Mallow from when she was eight to 18. She has three young boys now and she has ended up in the most awful poverty. We went to visit her and we were all devastated for her.
“She knew we were going to be visiting and she made us tea and coffee when we arrived. When she gave me the mug there was a price sticker on it. She had to go out and buy the six mugs and God knows, probably had to borrow money to buy them. Thank God we were in a position to help her. We bought clothes and toys for her children. Her cooker wasn’t working so we were able to buy her a new gas cooker and were able to pay off her bills. That was dreadful for all of us to see because we knew this young, bright, vivacious teenager who had her whole world ahead of her and just through circumstances she’s ended up in dreadful poverty with no back-up, no support, nothing. So we’re going to continue to help her.”
Patricia did, however, notice some positive changes contrasting with her first trip 20 years ago.
“The adult unit that Marsha’s friends went into is way better than the home they came out of. It’s still an institution but I was impressed with the staff and the young adults seemed happy in there, which I wouldn’t have said before. And I think the other difference was seeing families trying to look after their severely handicapped kids at home. I was thinking back to Ireland of the ’30s and ’40s; how we locked up our special needs kids, and it has taken charities like St Joseph’s in Charleville, Enable Ireland, Co-Action in West Cork and The Cope Foundation to say, ‘We need to do something’. And that is my hope for Belarus. And you can already see the start of that.
“Chernobyl Children’s Trust, which is run by Simon Walsh in Midleton, works in very rural areas and they’ve partnered with a charity down in the Gomel region, the area closest to the radiation zone, and they are supporting 65 families who are keeping their special needs kids at home. And that’s a real sense of hope. That’s the beginning of starting to move away from the institutions.”
Back home in Mallow, Patricia reflects on her own personal journey.
“We have absolutely no regrets. I wouldn’t change a day with Marsha. She’s our child and I look on her as if I gave birth to her. I never remember a time she wasn’t around.
“Belarus will always hold a special place in my heart because that was the country that gave me my daughter. I’ll never be able to thank them enough for that.”