This summer, on the island of Chios, 16 young adult volunteers from the U.S. and Canada had a transformative experience participating in the Greek America Foundation’s summer Service Learning program.
During the month of July, our volunteers worked diligently alongside a dedicated team of professions from the Greek non-governmental organization METAdrasi, which — among numerous other activities — is dedicated to supporting refugee minors who have arrived in Greece alone.
The group offered their time and talents to support METAdrasi and to help bring a bit of humanity to one of the most vulnerable population groups on the planet.
At METAdrasi’s shelter in Chios town, volunteers handled everyday tasks such as cooking, cleaning, painting and maintenance to make the shelter more of a home. They also engaged the children in lessons and activities on various topics including personal hygiene, computer skills, English language, music, yoga and meditation.
In addition to supporting the shelter, a separate team of volunteers with experience in pedagogy served as teachers at METAdrasi’s education center outside the VIAL refugee camp. Their important work gave young refugees the opportunity to learn Greek, English and other subjects such as mathematics.
Our volunteers also took METAdrasi’s children on numerous excursions throughout Chios island. These excursions included beach days, visits to historic villages, soccer matches and a bowling party, among others.
Such activities formed an important part of the program, as they allowed the volunteers to develop meaningful bonds with the children while encouraging them to be active.
Through their own fundraising campaign and their desire to leave a bit of themselves behind after leaving, the volunteers also raised nearly $2,400 to provide critical supplies for METAdrasi’s shelter.
The supplies included household necessities such as a new refrigerator, shoe cabinets, a large metal storage unit, new wood to fix dressers and three months of frozen pita bread — all of which improve the everyday lives of the children inhabiting the shelter. The funds also provided a €190 gas certificate for METAdrasi’s van — which its staff use to transport children on a daily basis.
Aside from their work, the volunteers had various opportunities to immerse themselves in everyday Greek culture and learn first-hand about contemporary Greece.
They visited the Mastic Museum and medieval villages and attended local “panegyria,” traditional festivals in celebration of Greek Orthodox saints, where they enjoyed Greek food and dance.
One of the highlights of the group’s excursions was the visit to Izmir, Turkey — formerly the thriving Greek city of Smyrna. The trip was life-changing in and of itself for some and provided a unique experience for the volunteers, who were taken on a guided tour throughout the city’s important historical areas from which hundreds of thousands of refugees fled for their lives nearly 100 years ago.
The team was guided by resident and Greek-American expatriate Chrysovalantis Stamelos, a teacher and filmmaker who has made the city his home after his own journey there to discover his ancestral roots. Stamelos was also supported by the Greek America Foundation in 2012 when he completed his documentary film “Hello Anatolia.”
Overall, many of the volunteers said that participating in this program was extremely beneficial for them.
Harrison Ungert, a student at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, called the experience “life-changing” and said he was both honored to serve Greece, the country of his mother’s ancestry, and to serve young children who have been caught — through no fault of their own — in the biggest refugee crisis of this generation.
“I know that what I’m doing here now is going to not only stick with me for the rest of my life, but also with the people that I’ve been working with — both volunteers and the children,” Ungert said. “I know my heart’s been touched and I strongly believed that theirs have been as well.”
Nicole Chacho, a graduate student at the University of Central Florida, said she enjoyed the program’s everyday social aspects.
“[I just love] the relationships we formed and the bond that we’re making with these kids,” Chacho said. “It’s something that’s going to stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Colin McCormick, a student at DePaul University, said he valued the immersive experience that he received through the program.
“Service learning programs like this are important because you’re able to commit yourself for a month without so many of the daily disruptions of life,” McCormick said. “You’re able to immerse yourself in a different culture [and] immerse yourself into volunteering fully — much more than you could with a busy life at home.”
Nicholas Ambus, a recent graduate from Arizona State University, said he feels immensely satisfied knowing that he and the other volunteers have made a difference.
“I think that our impact on [the children] has been huge and I hope that it’ll carry on past the program.” Ambus said. “I think just the satisfaction of knowing that we made a difference in some lives has made me feel really good about doing this program.”
We thank George and Kristin Strompolos for their generous support of this program that funded four volunteer scholarships. We also thank Linda and Jim Reilly of Rochester, NY and the Estate of the late Gerard P. Hendy of North Bend, Ohio for their generous support of this program. We are also grateful to Pro Travel International, our travel partners, for providing flights for our staff.