Like many of their peers in the United States, young Greek-Americans embody the global perspective and determination to change the world that are notable traits of their generation. Greek-American students and young professionals volunteer while visiting or studying in Greece, but some are also leading initiatives to change lives in communities around the world.
Through their example and outreach, these global-minded young leaders are making their heritage meaningful in new ways. They use their skills to mobilize their communities and extend community connections across borders, while standing on a foundation of common values.
"Dismiss the notion that you have to be 45 to begin doing something with your life, realizing your dreams, acting on your gifts," advises one of these young leaders, Demetri Patitsas. "We all must increase our gifts."
These Greek-American changemakers remind us that by listening to and volunteering alongside people in other communities, we build relationships that reveal our common values and lead us to deeper understandings of ourselves.
Meet three of them.
Christiana Thanos heard about the Theotokos Girl's Orphanage in India through the Greek Orthodox community. The orphanage, located in a village outside Kolkata, cares for over 100 girls, providing food, shelter, health care and education.
Christiana first volunteered with the orphanage in 2004 and has returned four times.
"Greek people like to know that our community is doing international work, and many people want to get involved." Christiana raises awareness of the orphanage's work through Greek-American organizations, the philanthropic arm of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, blogs and Greek youth.
In January 2009, with volunteers from the United States, she produced Lucky Girls. This 16-minute film features the vision and impact of the orphanage and the vibrant girls growing up there. It allows Christiana to share their story with audiences around the world. In 2011, the film won the video contest hosted by The Girl Effect, the Nike Foundation's worldwide effort to keep girls healthy and educated and raise them out of poverty. Since filming, 14 of the girls have started college.
"We gear our projects to young adults and youth," says Christiana. "Many philanthropic initiatives in the Greek American community are not geared specifically to young adults, so we try to fill that gap and make people's involvement meaningful and tailored to them."
Christiana devotes her time and creativity to Lucky Girls. She turned the film into the centerpiece of an initiative that invites young people to build support for the orphanage and the girls it helps educate and empower. Lucky Girls offers resources to help people host screenings of the film, create new projects, and join a Friendship Bracelet Campaign to help the orphanage.
Demetri Patitsas has always found great strength in his heritage. "It gave me a base to stand from in order to evaluate and find myself and increase my talents." With his twin brother, Peter, he founded St. Paul's Fellowship of Labor to organize trips to Orthodox Christian monasteries, convents and mission communities in six countries. Volunteers complete service projects, learn about the traditions of the church, disconnect and meditate, and discover a new place.
Two years later, after accepting a position in Xela, Guatemala, Demetri launched Exela Ventures. This social enterprise organizes learning and service trips that bring students, young professionals and educators from U.S. universities to Guatemala to build sustainable relationships with local communities through educational and development projects.
"As a social entrepreneur, I have tried to make use of all my networks to gain momentum and bring talent, time and treasure to our initiatives in Guatemala," says Demetri. "The Greek-American community is a slice of that pie. The Next Generation Initiative has been the most refined outreach effort of mine thus far in reaching out to that slice."
Demetri believes that while the Greek-American community is robust and growing, there is a need for leadership that can mobilize people to action around issues beyond culture and history. "My hope is that we come to realize that we have much to offer to the world in the now, and to do so, we have to work together and support and be patient and forgiving with one another."
"I think that no other community would be better equipped to fight for [global education] than the Greek-American community," declares Theoharis Dimarhos, the founder of Blue Schools.
"For over 3,000 years our people have been champions of education." He points out that over 67 million children do not have access to primary education. "We want to drive that number all the way down to zero," he asserts. Through Blue Schools, Theoharis and his team aim to build schools in developing countries and help children access primary education with the support of the Greek-American community.
In 2010, Theoharis traveled to Port-au-Prince to understand the impact of a natural disaster on people and communities. He describes an exchange with an aspiring young lawyer he met there. "Her passion about going to school lit up her eyes as she was talking to me. However, I couldn't fail noticing that all schools around the city were severely damaged. Along with Anomi, the 11-year-old I was talking to, there were thousands of children that now had no access to basic education. I promised her that I'd do something to help. Blue Schools is my work towards keeping that promise."
The Blue Schools approach is based on best practices: coordinating with education ministry and local officials to ensure the planned school will have teachers and supplies, and constructing the school in partnership with the local community.
"We began the Blue Schools journey passionate about our cause, but uncertain of what the response would be," recalls Theoharis. "We've been lucky enough to have the support of so many friends and family members, but also so many people that became friends and supporters along the way."
Blue Schools is raising funds to build its first school in Haiti. "We want everyone that follows us in this journey to have a great experience. And there is no greater experience than having fun while changing the world. That's the Greek way, I think!"
For more information on any of these initiatives, visit:
Lucky Girls: www.theluckygirlsmovie.com
Exela Ventures: www.exelaventures.com
Blue Schools: www.blueschools.net