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Mother promotes improving life for Ukraine's orphans

April 19, 2006, 0:00 4137 Author: Dan Huntley Charlotte Observer

CLOVER - Karmelle Chaise wants to hug 100,000 Ukrainian orphans -- the problem is her arms aren't wide enough.

She needs help.

Five years ago she traveled to the former Soviet state on a humanitarian mission. While there she was appalled at the conditions she witnessed at state-run orphanages -- diaperless babies packed in sheetless cribs where the sun rarely shined. Children who were never held, touched or hugged.

Several weeks later she and her husband, Keith, returned and adopted two tow-haired children, 3-year-old Avonlea and 1-year-old Eden.

The children were malnourished and had rickets, and Karmelle and her husband both developed Hepatitis A. After nursing her family back to health, Karmelle turned her attention to the children left behind.

In March, I wrote about Karmelle's efforts to educate Ukrainian child care workers about the physiological and emotional benefits of human touch.

Karmelle preaches how human touch can be worked into a daily regimen with little extra cost or time. Readers in the Charlotte region responded to her story by contributing more than $10,000 to help fund a 17-day trip to visit five Ukrainian orphanages. A Charlotte area group volunteered to help create a Web page for her nonprofit group, ORPHANBABY, and her Human Touch Project.

She returned to Clover on March 27. Her five-member team of physical therapists and volunteers paid for their own transportation and helped train 80 caregivers, who oversaw more than 800 children, most of whom had special needs.

It was a grueling agenda, traveling across a country ravaged by economic deprivation and political unrest. The volunteers were not prepared for the squalid conditions they encountered and several times had to rush out of an orphanage dormitory to vomit.

Karmelle's most poignant moment came when she watched an otherwise healthy 4-year-old boy lay motionless in a metal crib, his hands bandaged to keep him from scratching himself from scabies. An overworked caregiver came in and tried to force-feed a bowl of gruel to the child as he lay on his back; most of which ended up on his face and neck.

"I just could not bear to watch her shoveling that mush into that poor child's little mouth," Karmelle said. "We later lifted him and he was rigid as a board, but in time curled up on our laps just like any child would."

And that's really the essence of this courageous woman's quest: to teach Ukraine's 10,000 child care workers the importance of human touch.

She says the caregivers are, for the most part, caring but untrained women, who sometimes take the children home with them on the weekends. The workers are grossly underpaid and overworked -- in addition to the children's care, these workers are often responsible for shoveling snow, carrying water, and even digging graves to bury the children.

"Change is coming to Ukraine, grocery chains are popping up and there's even a move from the orphanages toward group homes and foster parents," she said. "But the orphanages are the last vestiges of the old Soviet regime, and the children are institutionalized, particularly the special-needs children."

Karmelle says the attitude is basically brought on by 19th century ignorance about health care -- that the best way to "protect" special-needs children is by isolating them and protecting them from further injury and infection.

"Can you imagine a child's perspective of having been raised in a place where every adult's face is covered by a surgeon's mask and they never saw a smile?" she said.

Karmelle tells of a training session in which caregivers gasped when a physical therapist pushed a baby's leg up and back to stretch his hamstring.

"Their attitude is that these children are somehow fragile and not limber enough to be stretched," she said. "And the irony is that by supposedly protecting them, they are weakening the children and making their limbs so brittle they cannot walk."

On June 9, Karmelle is leading another team to Ukraine. She has eight volunteers but still is looking for a physical therapist and two occupational therapists. It costs $3,000 to be a volunteer in "Karmelle's Army."

"Our goal is to train the caregivers in every orphanage," she said. "It's not high-tech and it doesn't cost a lot of money. But think of what it means to a child who has never been held."

Want to Help?

Karmelle Chaise will talk with your church, civic group or class to explain the work she's doing in the Ukraine. You can reach her at ORPHANBABY, P.O. Box 342, Clover, S.C. 29710; (803) 389-1341 or e-mail info[at]orphanbaby.org

A $50 tax-deductible donation will provide a month of physical therapy for one Ukrainian baby.

Happy Child foundation - effective help to the most needy children of the Zaporozhye region, Ukraine, since 2004

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