Stu­dent vol­un­teers learn life lessons in Greece

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY LINA GIANNAROU

An­drew woke up on a re­cent Fri­day morn­ing, had a quick break­fast and headed to the Church of Aghia Var­vara. Once there, he un­cov­ered the bas­kets of bread and started slic­ing the loaves. He had to be ready on time be­cause a large crowd was ex­pected to gather soon in the court­yard for the daily food hand­out, one of the big­gest in the north­ern port city of Thes­sa­loniki.

The Amer­i­can Col­lege of Thes­sa­loniki, a post­grad­u­ate, non­profit in­sti­tu­tion run by Ana­to­lia Col­lege, of­fers high-cal­iber ed­u­ca­tion, but for 18year-old An­drew it is the ex­pe­ri­ence of giv­ing food to the needy ev­ery Fri­day morn­ing that he finds riv­et­ing – a real les­son, in ev­ery sense of the word.

“I have worked as a vol­un­teer back home – but noth­ing as en­light­en­ing as this. For a lot of us who come from priv­i­leged back­grounds, this re­ally puts every­thing into per­spec­tive. It is one thing to watch it on the news and en­tirely an­other to see peo­ple in front you who can’t af­ford food. The refugee cri­sis is dif­fer­ent on the screen than it is when you see huge groups of peo­ple,” he says.

An­drew Croy from Mas­sachusetts is one of 300 stu­dents who made the trip in Septem­ber to Thes­sa­loniki to at­tend the fall se­mes­ter at ACT as part of the study abroad pro­gram. The stu­dents come from some of the finest ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions in the US, such as Brown, Rut­gers and the uni­ver­si­ties of Illi­nois and Mis­sis­sippi. Vol­un­teer work is part of the cur­ricu­lum and they will be com­plet­ing a to­tal of 7,000 hours at places such as the Aghios Dimitrios Phys­i­cal Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­ter for Chil­dren, the Ar­sis cen­ter and hos­tel for home­less mi­nors, the Smile of the Child char­ity, var­i­ous churches, and the Friends of Peo­ple with Dis­abil­i­ties, among oth­ers.

The­o­ret­i­cally, the vol­un­teers could also work on large group cam­paigns but ACT de­cided to in­di­vid­u­al­ize the pro­gram by split­ting the stu­dents into small groups so they could gain a more in-depth knowl­edge of what they are do­ing and the so­ci­ety they have be­come a part of.

The cost of man­ag­ing the pro­gram is high, but so are the re­wards.

“The pro­gram started grad­u­ally 15 years ago,” Dr Panos Vla­chos, the pres­i­dent of ACT, told Kathimerini. “In 1998 we had just seven stu­dents from the US, but since 2007, when we started to forge partnerships with ma­jor uni­ver­si­ties over there, we have seen a huge in­crease. Vol­un­teerism is al­ways part of the stu­dents’ aca­demic com­mit­ments. In the be­gin­ning, though, this cul­ture was lack­ing in Thes­sa­loniki. I re­mem­ber send­ing stu­dents to food lines and the ladies work­ing there would tell them to sit down and of­fer to make them cof­fee. It was bit awk­ward at first but in the past four years or so we have de­vel­oped ex­cel­lent co­op­er­a­tions with all the agen­cies and built trust.”

Now, the city’s or­ga­ni­za­tions and agen­cies look for­ward to the ar­rival of a new batch of vol­un­teers from the US ev­ery year.

“It was one of my most valu­able ex­pe­ri­ences in Greece,” said Ryan, who vol­un­teered with the Friends of Peo­ple with Dis­abil­i­ties. “I learned a lot about the com­mu­nity and its needs and I felt it was the only time that I felt en­tirely as­sim- ilated with Greek cul­ture.”

An­other young woman, who pre­ferred not to give her name, said: “I had never done any vol­un­teer work in my life. Now was the time. I am ac­cus­tomed to be­ing served, cooked for, not lift­ing a fin­ger. Now it’s time for me to serve peo­ple in need and to prove that we are all equal.”

The school’s ef­forts are con­stant and on­go­ing.

“It is odd that while we were of­fer­ing vol­un­teers we had trou­ble plac­ing them with or­ga­ni­za­tions,” said Vla­chos. “Of­ten, be­cause of la­bor laws, it was hard to jus­tify the pres­ence of the vol­un­teers. Grad­u­ally, though, all the ob­sta­cles were over­come.”

Last year ACT hosted 500 Amer­i­can stu­dents, more than any other univer­sity in South­east­ern Europe. In to­tal, ACT has hosted over 3,000 Amer­i­can high school grad­u­ates, un­of­fi­cial am­bas­sadors of the US in Greece.

“Th­ese kids form last­ing bonds with Greece and build pre­cious bridges with their coun­try,” said Vla­chos. “The ben­e­fits are mul­ti­ple for Thes­sa­loniki as most of them re­turn for hol­i­days with their fam­i­lies or friends and ad­ver­tise Greece every­where they go. We have es­ti­mated that this pro­gram con­trib­utes more than 7 mil­lion eu­ros a year to Thes­sa­loniki’s econ­omy.”

Last year the Amer­i­can Col­lege of Thes­sa­loniki hosted 500 Amer­i­can stu­dents, more than any other univer­sity in South­east­ern Europe. In to­tal, ACT has hosted over 3,000 Amer­i­can high school grad­u­ates, un­of­fi­cial am­bas­sadors of the US in Greece.

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