They were the only official American group of young people in Greece this summer, allowed to enter only after organizers obtained special permission from the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs via the Greek Embassy in Washington DC, and the experience, according to the young participants, was “life-changing.”
The Greek America Foundation’s popular Greek America Corps volunteer program was launched in 2017 to offer young North Americans an opportunity to experience Greece differently– through service and philanthropy– two ideals championed by the New York City-based foundation.
Five different programs were initially planned for this summer with more than 50 young people participating, sharing their time and talents with various vulnerable communities, including homeless people, unaccompanied refugee minors and abandoned and at-risk children.
But these programs had to be cancelled because of the travel restrictions in the European Union.
Organizers regrouped and reached out to Greek officials, requesting permission for a smaller group of people to travel to Greece to offer their services in various capacities. Permission was granted with various conditions, including mandatory COVID-19 tests prior to departure, followed by a short quarantine period upon arrival.
The group of six volunteers and staff from New York, North Carolina, California, Chicago and New Jersey spent two weeks supporting homeless people on the streets of Athens and Piraeus, with partners from a local organization called Emfasis Foundation.
They also worked alongside vulnerable youth at two shelters for unaccompanied refugee minors with METAdrasi and the Greek Council for Refugees and visited the Chios branch of Kivotos Tou Kosmou (Ark of the World) where dozens of children are housed.
They also hit the beach, not for a party but for a garbage clean up alongside a Greek volunteer group called We4All, cleaning dozens of bags of debris from Agios Kosmas, a seaside town south of Athens.
The program included cultural and educational experiences and excursions and students were offered college credit transferrable to their home institution from the Hellenic American University, a U.S.-accredited school in Athens.
United States Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt also welcomed the group upon their arrival in Athens at an hour-long meeting and briefing at the American Embassy. During the meeting the ambassador spoke to the team about the current state of U.S.-Greece relations.
In a Tweet after the meeting, Pyatt congratulated the group for their service.
Macy Minear, a participant from Los Angeles, called the experience “life-changing” and said it had motivated her to return to her community and start “paying it forward.”
“Philanthropy is such a big part of who we are as Greeks, but you don’t really understand what that means until you get to meet the people you’re helping,” Minear said. “This whole experience has made me want to return to Los Angeles and start paying it forward.”
Vasiliki Radaios, a participant from Chicago who also took part in the foundation’s inaugural program in 2017, explained that the program helped her chart her life’s course.
“After my experiences in 2017 I really understood what I wanted to do in life,” Radaios said. “This program helped me shape the direction I wanted to take.”
Radaios traveled to Greece shortly after completing a masters degree in epidemiology and public health at New York University and said she wants to apply her skills to refugee populations.
Angelica Piegari, a New Jersey native studying at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, also called the experience “life-changing” and said her experiences serving vulnerable refugee youth “helped put a face on all of the conflicts around the world that we study in political science courses.”
Basil Armatas, a two-time volunteer from Denver, said her time in Greece helped her decide that she wanted to have a career working with children.
Gregory Pappas, founder of the Greek America Foundation, explained his motivation to launch the program in a blog post recently.
“We wanted to create a program that served vulnerable populations in Greece— a nation to which we owe so much for helping to shape our identity. How can we call ourselves Greek-Americans without doing something to connect us to the nation that defines half of our hyphenated identity? Simultaneously, I wanted to offer North American young people an opportunity to live and experience philanthropy and philotimo, daily, first hand. These are two ideals that we in the diaspora love to use— almost obsessively— to define us and to differentiate us from others.”
The foundation has already “hit the ground running” and is planning various 2021 programs. Those interested in learning more should follow the Greek America Foundation’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts and join the monthly mailing list with emailed announcements.
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