The Rockland County Legislature presented a Distinguished Service Award to educator, youth advocate and humanitarian Donald Cairns Tuesday in recognition of his service to others. For more than three decades, Cairns taught at Ramapo High School, where members of the National Honor Society voted him Teacher of the Year.
Cairns was further recognized with the Father F. Peter Malet Service to Youth Award from Rockland County, cited for his extensive unpaid efforts, including serving as chairman of the Town of Ramapo Youth Court and chairman of Hudson Valley Blood Services. Other volunteer activities included service with the March of Dimes, helping to raise thousands for the nonprofit organization which works to improve the lives of babies by preventing birth defects. He also chaired the Village of Suffern Recreation Committee.
Cairns enjoyed taking students on educational trips to other nations, so they could experience history – not just read about it. He’d been doing that since 1972, without any real incidents. That changed on April 25, 1986, as he was touring the then-Soviet Union with 38 students – and the Chernobyl nuclear accident occurred. The group immediately left and all made it home safely, only the soles of their shoes testing positive for radiation exposure.
In 1988, after a friend asked for help, Cairns took $35,000 worth of vitamins to Belarus. Although the accident happened in Chernobyl, Ukraine, the wind blew most of the radiation north to Belarus, and the vitamins and other medical supplies brought by Cairns were needed by the people there. Over the next 13 years, Cairns, students, faculty members and others raised more than $25 million for the Children of Chernobyl Fund, set up to benefit the people of Belarus. For his part in the effort, Cairns was awarded the Francis Skaryna Medal, Belarus’s highest honor.
This spring, Cairns and the others were recognized by the United Nations for their involvement in the successful humanitarian effort.
After retiring from teaching in 1999, Cairns headed to the development office at Rockland Community College, becoming executive director of the RCC Foundation. Under his leadership, the Foundation raised millions of dollars for scholarships, student support, campus improvements and faculty development. He retired earlier this year.