Twenty years ago, a nuclear power plant in the former Soviet Union exploded not once, but twice, soaking the atmosphere with 100 times more radiation than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
The plant is located on the border area between Ukraine and Belarus. At the time of the accident, about 7 million people lived in contaminated territories, including 3 million children. More than 5 million people, including more than a million children, still live in contaminated zones, according to the Chernobyl Children's Project International, a not-for-profit organization that provides humanitarian and medical aid.
Two decades later, radioactive elements are spread through dust particles deposited in the earth by rainfall or enter the food chain through plants and animals, according to the organization. Millions continue to be exposed to these low doses of radiation, and their children are showing the tragic results. Many of them are born with disabilities so severe their parents either don't want them or can't help them.
While much of the world seems to have forgotten this ongoing tragedy, The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith met one extraordinary woman who is doing all she can to help.
Jennifer O'Dea, 30, is a pediatric occupational therapist from Hoboken, N.J., whose life changed when she saw an HBO documentary called "Chernobyl Heart," which opened her eyes to the plight of Chernobyl's orphans. "The world doesn't know about them," she told Smith. "They live at the end of a road and it symbolizes their life. They're at the end of the road for their life."
The tragic story inspired O'Dea to change the focus of her own life. "I've worked with children with severe deformities and I've never seen anything like these children before," she said "Nothing was being done about this. The children were laying in beds and … they weren't even able to have an environment where they had the independence to even grow and to be children."
O'Dea was asked to be one of the first Americans to travel to the Vesnova Orphanage, located southeast of Minsk near Bobruisk. She had to raise money to pay for her trip and for the therapy tools she needed for the children, including therapy balls, inflatable rolling equipment, and swings.
Her home video from the trip shows the children responding to her with smiles and laughter. She had just two weeks to treat as many children as she could and to train the staff to take over after she left. While she went to Vesnova with high expectations, she soon discovered it was the little triumphs that mattered most. "Just teaching a nurse or a caregiver there to sit a child up to feed them so that they can stay alive really is where you have to start," she said.
She described some of the children she worked with there, fighting back tears at the memory of their struggles. "Vlad is a beautiful child with cerebral palsy, and he is eight years old," she told Smith. "He seeks out love. And he's always aware of his environment. And he's a little guy that's trapped inside a very tight body."
O'Dea has been to Vesnova twice in the last year and is returning again this summer. She has made it her mission in life to make the world take note of this tragedy. "When I was there on my first trip, they took us down to the graveyard and an Irish nurse said to me, 'These children have no voice. Nobody can talk for them,'" O'Dea remembered. "She said, 'Go home and spread the word, do what you can, because otherwise, these children, no one will know that they even exist.'"