They were the only official American group of young people in Greece this summer, allowed to enter after receiving special permission from the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs via the Greek Embassy in Washington D.C.
And the experience? “Life-changing,” according to the words of our volunteers.
Our Greek America Corps volunteer program launched in 2017 to offer young North Americans an opportunity to experience Greece differently — through service and philanthropy.
Original summer 2020 plans included five different programs with dozens of applicants prepared to help vulnerable communities including homeless people, unaccompanied refugee minors and abandoned and at-risk children. But these programs had to be cancelled because of travel restrictions.
After contacting Greek officials, we requested permission for a smaller group to enter Greece to offer their services in various capacities. Permission was granted with various conditions, including mandatory COVID-19 tests prior to departure, a short quarantine upon arrival and an additional COVID-19 test after.
Our 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 our non-profit partners from Emfasis Foundation.
Emfasis provides survival and personalized psychosocial support for the homeless, the chronically unemployed, families below the poverty line, socially vulnerable young people and socially excluded seniors at risk of imminent homelessness or in a “street situation.”
The team also worked alongside vulnerable youth at two shelters for unaccompanied refugee minors with METAdrasi and the Greek Council for Refugees.
METAdrasi’s mission is to facilitate the reception and integration of refugees and migrants in Greece. Part of the organization’s work includes the protection of unaccompanied and separated children through a comprehensive safety net of activities including accommodation facilities, escorting from precarious conditions to safe spaces and the pioneering activities of guardianship, foster families and supported independent living.
The Greek Council for Refugees welcomes and offers free legal and social advice and services to refugees and people coming from third countries who are entitled to international protection in Greece, while special emphasis is put on vulnerable cases, such as unaccompanied minors or victims of trafficking.
The 2020 program included a weekend trip to Chios where our group visited the Aegean branch of Kivotos Tou Kosmou (Ark of the World), a longtime non-profit partner of the Greek America Foundation.
Kivotos provides special care and protection to mothers and children with an emphasis on young unprotected children, most of whom come from single-parent families. The organization also assists many foster children who have experienced neglect, abandonment, lack of medical care and uncertain future.
During the group’s visit at the Kivotos facility on Chios, the Greek America Foundation announced a $5,000 USD grant to the organization’s island branch to support its various needs.
Darden Livesay, one of the Greek America Corps program coordinators, made the announcement in a Facebook Live video on the foundation’s page.
Aside from their work with our non-profit partners, our Greek America Corps team also hit the beach — not for a party but for a garbage clean up alongside a Greek volunteer group called We4All.
Over a period of two hours, the team cleaned dozens of bags of debris from Agios Kosmas, a seaside town south of Athens.
Throughout the two-week program, volunteers enjoyed cultural and educational experiences and excursions such as museum visits, meals and walking tours.
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 has motivated her to continue practicing philanthropy after returning home.
“This program has affected me in so many ways. It has broadened my perspective more than any school studies or anything really ever could,” Minear said. “And it has affected me on an emotional scale so much; these people have really made a difference in my life… And I will carry all of it back to America with me.”
Vasiliki Radaios, a 2020 participant from Chicago who also took part in our inaugural program in 2017, explained that the program helped her chart her life’s course. Radaios had 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.
“If you’re thinking about joining this program, I would say ‘Do it,'” Radaios said. “It is incredibly fulfilling to be of service to others, and the people that you’ll meet and connections that you’ll make will leave a big mark on your soul in ways that you can’t even imagine.”
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 give life to the global conflicts she studies in political science courses.
“The reward of being able to make a change in these people’s lives and to see these children blossom right before your eyes — even after just being with them for such little time — it is probably thus far in my life one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever participated in,” Piegari said.
Basil Armatas, a two-time volunteer from Denver, said her time in Greece helped her decide that she wants to pursue a career working with children.
“I think these programs are important because they spread awareness for what’s really going on in the world,” Armatas said. “We always hear about it, but we never really fully understand until you see it up close. And I’ve gotten to experience that twice, which I’m really grateful for.”
Gregory Pappas, founder of the Greek America Foundation, explained his motivation to launch the program in a recent blog post.
“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.”
Plans are already underway for various 2021 Greek America Corps volunteer programs.