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SPJ Sigma Delta Chi Award, Best Documentary "...it's me, Vanya" Alabama Public Radio

“I had no idea, back then, what it would mean twenty years later,” said Susan Lee of Pelham, Alabama.

Lee’s story, and that of a nine year boy from the former Soviet nation of Belarus, are at the heart of Alabama Public Radio’s entry for the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Radio Documentary, titled “…it’s me, Vanya.” It focuses on the still unfolding story of the “Children of Chernobyl” program in Alabama.

The three member Alabama Public Radio news team collaborated with the University of Alabama’s Center for Public Television on this two year project. The story was brought to life with original raw audio that "sat in a box" unheard for two decades. APR and CPT unearthed and digitized this material for use in our documentary. The audio ranged from negotiations with wary parents in Belarus to send their children to live with strangers in Alabama, to baseball games in the U.S., to the anguish of trips to American dentists where neither side spoke the same language. The program, produced with no budget, aired on the 35th anniversary of Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster.

In 1999 and 2000, families in Alabama hosted youngsters impacted by radiation from the 1986 accident in the Soviet nation of Ukraine.

The results are being felt to this day.

Please click here to listen to the program.

https://www.apr.org/post/its-me-vanya

Our program pairs contemporary interviews, conducted in the U.S. and in the former Soviet nation of Belarus with the twenty year old, never-before-heard, audio which gave our listeners the opportunity to experience this piece of history from an insiders’ perspective.

The Lee family took in nine year old Ivan Kovaliou in the year 2000. At that time, he went by the childhood nickname of “Vanya.” After a forty day stay, he returned to Belarus, and the Lee’s lost contact in 2004. That changed eight years later with a note on Facebook messenger from a Belarusian college student.

“It’s me, Vanya,” it said.

APR and CPT were at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International airport as Ivan was reunited with the Lee family, almost twenty years after his time in Alabama.

We balanced the views of the Belarusian people along with the “children of Chernobyl” organizers by seeking out the mother/daughter translation team of Vita Lutsko and Larisa Shapavalenko. Not only did they work with the host parents, but Shapavelenko raised Vita in the shadow of Chernobyl. Both currently live in Belarus, so we arranged for a producer in Minsk to record the interviews.
Pat Duggins