Top-ranked women's tennis player Maria Sharapova was named a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. Development Program Wednesday and immediately donated $100,000 to aid recovery from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which touched her own family.
The Russian-born Sharapova, 19, told a packed news conference at U.N. headquarters that her work for the poverty-fighting agency will have a special focus on helping the area affected by the world's worst nuclear accident.
"I still have family that's affected," said Sharapova. "This definitely means a lot to me."
On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the electricity-generating plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine exploded during a pre-dawn test and spewed radioactive clouds over the western Soviet Union and northern Europe. The shattered reactor leaked radioactivity for 10 days and contaminated 77,220 square miles. The Soviet government had to permanently evacuate more than 300,000 people.
Sharapova's father and pregnant mother fled the city of Gomel in Belarus - about 80 miles north of Chernobyl - shortly before she was born in Nyagan, Siberia.
Gomel was one of the areas most affected by radiation and Sharapova's parents were concerned about its effects on their unborn child, she said. Sharapova said she still has family in Gomel, including a grandmother.
Sharapova said her first priority would be to call attention to the lingering effects of Chernobyl.
Her money will go to eight U.N. development projects in rural communities in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine directed at youths suffering from the effects of the nuclear accident. The projects include sports and computer facilities and hospitals.
Thirty-one people died within the first two months of the Chernobyl disaster from illnesses caused by radioactivity. There is debate over the longer-term toll. The U.N. health agency has estimated that about 9,300 people will die from cancers caused by Chernobyl's radiation. Some groups, such as Greenpeace, insist the toll could be 10 times higher.
Some 5 million people live in areas where radioactive particles fell in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
Sharapova signed a contract with the UNDP which promises to pay her a symbolic salary of $1 per year for her two-year term. She called it "my proudest contract ever."
Goodwill ambassadors make field visits to some of the poorest areas of the world to draw attention to their plight and pay all their own costs.
Sharapova said her work with the UNDP will extend to other impoverished areas as well, adding that she had always been fascinated with Africa and told the UNDP she wanted to visit.
Sharapova left Russia in 1995 and moved to the United States. She now lives in Bradenton, Fla. She won the 2004 Wimbledon and 2006 U.S. Open titles and has earned more than $9 million in her six-year career, the AP reports.
On behalf of UNDP, Sharapova will promote international efforts to achieve the poverty-reduction Millennium Development Goals in the areas of education, health, women's rights and sanitation by the target date of 2015.
Other UNDP goodwill ambassadors are Crown Prince Haakon Magnus of Norway, Japanese actress Misako Konno and three soccer stars: Ronaldo of Brazil, Zinedine Zidane of France and Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast, ANTARA News reports.
Prepared by Alexander Timoshik
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