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Looking East: Tour boat captain raises money in the season to aid newest victims of the Chernobyl disaster

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Rod Singleton, better known as Cap’n Rod of Lowcountry Plantation Tours in Georgetown, walks down the hallway of an orphanage in a small village in the Ukraine with a big box of sugar cookies on his head.

That’s how he keeps from being overrun by children wanting a cookie while he is on his annual mission tour of the country.

“PePaw, mini chew-chew,” says Dennis, who has hooked one thumb into Singleton’s belt loop to get his attention. Dennis is one of thousands of deformed children born to parents exposed to radiation when a nuclear power plant at Chernobyl exploded in 1986. Except for a Christmas visit from his grandmother, Dennis has been abandoned at the orphanage. His arms are little more than stubs, his webbed hands protrude near his elbows. “They took a butcher knife and cut his thumbs free,” Singleton says, “creating a kind of mitten so he could hold things. I reach up and hand him a couple cookies, and he’ll take off running down the hall. In about 5 or 10 minutes, he’ll come back and say, ‘PePaw, mini chew-chew.’ Sugar cookies are among the few things they allow us to take to the severely handicapped kids because they will dissolve in their mouths and they won’t choke. We’ll buy a box of 50 dozen cookies, and I hold them on top of my head and give one or two to every kid.”

Once Dennis has made two or three cookie runs, a nurse tells Singleton it’s time to stop. He’ll ruin his supper.

Rod Singleton didn’t intend to become a missionary when he and his wife, Fran, bought a house near Surfside Beach and started attending Timberlake Baptist Church on Highway 707 almost 20 years ago. Within a week, a member asked if he had ever thought about a mission trip. “Well no,” Singleton answered. “I’ve thought it would be an awesome thing to do once I retire and have time to do stuff.” She suggested praying about it, and if God put it in his heart to go, he would provide a way.

“I asked where she went,” Singleton said, “and she said Ukraine. And I said, ‘Where’s Ukraine?’ I’d never heard of Ukraine.”

Singleton said he couldn’t stop thinking about going on a mission trip after two or three other church members suggested it. “Fran and I were just getting this new boat business started,” he said. “We were struggling, like everybody in a new business. We prayed, ‘Lord, if it’s your will for us to do mission work, you’re going to have to provide because we don’t have any money.’ Fran came up with the idea to put a snack bar on the tour boat, and everything we make on concessions goes to mission work. This will be my 16th year, and never have I had to take money out of my own pocket.”

It takes 30 to 35 hours to travel to Ukraine, first by air from Charleston to Washington, D.C., to New York, to Denmark to Kiev. Then the American missionaries board a bus that Singleton says looks like a 1960s Greyhound out of a “Cheech and Chong” movie with propane tanks on top. Gasoline is too expensive, he says. Finally, a three-hour car ride brings them to the remote villages they want to visit. “Imagine how Aynor looked back in the 1800’s,” Singleton said. “That’s the way the Ukraine looks.”

Thankfully, the region Singleton visits is far away from the fighting between the country’s army and Russian separatists. Day-to-day survival takes precedence over political struggles for these people, he said. These little villages have community wells. There is no plumbing, no electricity. An outhouse is a luxury. Some facilities are just a hole in the ground with boards on top. Fortunately for the missionaries, poverty doesn’t sap the people’s generosity. “Every church has a root cellar,” Singleton said. “Village farmers grow way more than they can ever sell, and they donate it to the orphanages.” He described carrots as big as his arm and rutabagas that look like basketballs. Farmers joked that it’s the nuclear fallout, but they are a hundred miles from the contaminated area and safe from radiation.

The missionaries conduct church in the mornings for older folks and are usually treated to a big meal spread out on planks sitting on sawhorses. “You know they are giving us food they are taking right out of their own closets,” Singleton said. After lunch, they play with the children, tying animal balloons and telling Bible stories. Before leaving an orphanage they ask the administrator about his needs: usually children’s winter clothes and shoes and hygiene items like soap and toothbrushes. Every year they give away a thousand goodie bags containing little toys, sunglasses and water tattoos to orphans.

Last year, the missionaries sent a shipping container filled with winter coats and supplies to Kiev for the orphans, but it was intercepted by criminals, looted and left open for street people. This fall, Singleton said, they plan to buy the coats through a broker in the Ukraine and save the $2,700 shipping cost.

The banking system is so corrupt, they don’t dare send the money ahead. “One of our missionaries suggested we send money by UPS,” Singleton said. “Have you seen a UPS truck?” he asked. “FedEx? A post office box?”

They move on to the next little village where an abandoned Soviet officer’s house has been converted to a church and orphanage. The missionaries left money for a water heater two years ago. “They had never had one,” Singleton said. “Imagine giving handicapped kids a bath in cold water.”

When asked about the water heater, the Ukrainians turned “white as a sheet,” Singleton said. They gave the money to an orphanage down the road that needed a new roof.

Another host, a single mother supporting two children and her own mother, made Singleton a bed out of a foot-tall palate of quilts in a closet. She had phoned America to see how “long” he was to be sure the closet was big enough. She prepared a delicious dish the first night, and when one of the missionaries from Wilmington learned it was rabbit, she asked, “Like Bugs Bunny?” Singleton said it took quite a while to explain a cartoon character to someone who had never seen television.

As Singleton prepares to leave the orphanage where Dennis lives, he wants to say good-bye. The administrator shows him the bedspreads purchased with his gifts last year and pushes open the door to the room Dennis shares. “There were four little kids totally deformed that could not feed themselves lined up on the bed,” Singleton says. “Dennis was hand-feeding each one of them his cookies. That’s the way those people are.”

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