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Constance McClain, co-founder of the Chernobyl Children's Project and a Petaluma Christmas tree farmer, died Feb. 17. She was 92.

McClain was a veteran world traveler who volunteered on soup lines, met with runaway teens and built homes in cities like Leningrad and Tijuana and on continents like Africa and Asia.

A sudden closing of the Lithuanian border in 1990 led McClain and her husband, Clifford, on a serendipitous journey to Belarus, then the Soviet Byelorussia.

She had already raised five children and was busy with McClain's Holiday Farm when the unexpected side trip led the couple on a journey to witness the lasting catastrophic effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster.

They returned home and together started a project to bring children who live in the contaminated region to spend summers in the United States.

The organization brought dozens of children each year from 1991 to 2008 to spend six weeks with North Bay families for a summertime exchange program. The children enjoyed picnics and amusement-park visits but also received dental care and eye exams.

The trip to Belarus was life-changing for McClain, who after returning to Petaluma told a Press Democrat reporter: "This is my mission."

McClain was born Nov. 29, 1920, in Philadelphia to Milton Richard Solivan and Alice Catherine Macgargal.

Her family moved to southern California in 1933 and McClain studied political science at UC Berkeley.

McClain enlisted with the Marine Corps during her sophomore year and served in military intelligence. She met Clifford McClain when she returned to Berkeley.

Clifford McClain's professional baseball career took the couple from Oakland to Albuquerque until they settled first in St. Helena and then in 1955 in Marinwood, where they raised their children.

During a year-long sabbatical to Europe in 1966, McClain and her husband packed their four youngest children into a Volkswagen and drove from Vienna into Communist-controlled Czechslovakia.

"With four kids in a Volkswagen, imagine going across the Iron Curtain," said their son, Craig McClain of Petaluma, who was 12 years old at the time. "It was pretty impressive. They certainly didn't have a faint heart."

McClain protested alongside Cesar Chavez for farmworkers' rights in San Rafael and was arrested during the event.

When McClain saw hardship, she did not become cynical, she took action, her son said.

"She was tough, she was tenacious, but she was the most loving and giving person," Craig McClain said.

The McClains moved to Petaluma in 1974 and opened the Christmas tree farm, growing trees as well as fruits and berries for public picking by busloads of students.

She volunteered with the Sonoma County Peace and Justice Committee and served meals with the Helping Hands nonprofit. McClain planted the Petaluma Peace Garden in 1988 outside Petaluma City Hall.

In addition to her husband and son, McClain is survived by daughters Shirley Ingram of Penngrove and Candice Van Beek of Greenville, Mo. and sons Steve McClain of Eugene, Ore. and Paul McClain of Kentfield.

A celebration of life will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Petaluma United Methodist Church, 410 D St. A reception will follow in the social hall.

-- Julie Johnson

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