Rolf Bolliger, member of the board of the Chernobyl Aid Association Hardwald

"My Life has become rich."

Rolf Bolliger fought for his life after suffering a stroke. He found a new purpose in working with children in Belarus.

"In Belarus, people still live in the countryside the way they did in the stories I was told by my grandparents. There's no running water in the  houses, they have outdoor outhouse, and the houses are built out of wood. At Lila's in Dyatlovichi, they have their own indoor bathroom because her father had saved some money after working in Germany – plus he's a very talented craftsman. I've known the 18-year-old Lila since she was 14 years old, when she and another girl from Belarus stayed with my wife and one for one month as guest children. We liked each other from the moment we met. In the beginning, communication was a bit bumpy, but Lila improved her German with each passing day. We laughed a lot, and this shared laughter lasts until this day. I've since visited Lila and her family many times in my role as a board member of the Hardwald Aid Association, but also privately  – the visits have long since been that of friends. The difficult living conditions in Belarus can't of course be ignored and the wealth gap is also present in your mind, but there's never been a divide between us.  To the contrary: it's the warmth of my friends in Belarus who allow me to forget each time about all the trappings in life, a type of hospitality that's almost unknown in Switzerland, something so valuable, what people can give to each other.
In 2006, I suffered a stroke. My life was turned completely upside down, and I had to re-learn the simplest of things. I was left slightly disabled and haven't been able to work since then. Two years later we hosted the first guest children from Belarus. My wife had heard about the beneficial work of the Hardwald Aid Association and although I was still severely impaired physically, we took everything in stride and enjoyed four very pleasant and exciting weeks. I become a board member a year later and have been travelling regularly to Belarus ever since. The first trips were in part about a search for meaning; I wanted to find out if I can still do good for society with my disability and wanted to know what my limits are, both physically and mentally. I rediscovered cycling and have made it to Berlin, Paris and Vienna on my recumbent bicycle adapted to accommodate my body, half of which is partly paralysed. And in Belarus I've come to realise that my way back into life is also the way forward. These encounters, these friendships, this beautiful country: my life has become rich. At the Hardwald Aid Association, all eight board members and the many people involved work on a volunteer basis. Every year we provide four-week holiday visits with Swiss host families to around 30 children from the contaminated regions in Belarus When I travel with fellow board members to Belarus in the winter to deal with the organisational issues, I'm also always aware of how much responsibility we all have and how much trust the parents of the children place in us. We invite each of them so we can get to know each other but also to explain what we do with the children. In addition to staying with a guest family, the children can look forward to an excursion programme: sometimes we go to the zoo, sometimes to the mountains. Everything is supported by voluntary helpers and donors, who secure the financing. This can't be taken for granted, just like the trust of our Belarusian partners who have since become our friends.”