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Culture

Americans Volunteer in Greece

By Lynn Lotkowictz

Based on my most enjoyable 2013 experience, I booked my second, two-week program teaching English to students in an after school program organized by Global Volunteers, a non-profit, NGO that offers service programs in various countries.

In Gazi, Crete we stayed at the Handakas Hotel. A very basic, but charming property conveniently located to public transportation, two small towns Gazi and Amadoura.

The hotel management make you feel like you’re visiting the home of a family member with three healthy meals per day, rooms with small patios, pool and private bath.

There are many beautiful nearby sites easily reached by bus, Phaistos ruins, Knossos, the port city of Heraklion, Matala, where the caves alongside the mountains and Libyan sea make a spectacular setting, to name a few. The nine other volunteers and myself visit schools from 5 to 10PM working with students on improving and conversing in English. What was particularly heartwarming was many of them remembered me from two years ago and I had the thrill of seeing how they had progressed, matured and thrived in spite of the continuing high unemployment, tax increases and other economic difficulties in Greece.

MEMORABLE MOMENTS

One morning: venturing out in the Aegean sunshine my Global Volunteers friend, Cynthia and I walked the short distance to the town of Gazi. After shopping we stopped for our favorite mid-morning treat, frappe at a roadside coffee shop. Chatting with the waitress, it came up that my dad was from Crete and specifically from the Chania area. A few minutes later, the elderly proprietor of the coffee shop appeared introducing himself as the waitress’ dad. He informed us that he too was from Chania, with a broad smile.

I was invited into a very personal conversation. We spoke of the economic difficulties, new increase in taxes and negative impact that austerity was bringing on his business and all of Greece. Yet, he continued on, how their olive trees and home grown garden vegetables made their lives abundant. He was asking us to witness with clarity, the Greek situation.

This man and his family are struggling but still he is aware of his blessings. It brought me to tears, but in the best possible way. He made my day … and I think I made his. Then, we added another element to our volunteer week. Three of my female teammates and I visited the Union of Women Members Association of Heraklion (UWMAH).

This is a group of 75 women who work on various projects in the community. They fund and run an abused women’s shelter, support a counseling program for women who need advice and are in the process of building the “House of Angels.” This is a facility for children age zero to six, who have been abandoned or their parents cannot care for them.

We met with members of this organization who know some English but welcome the opportunity to practice and exchange ideas. We were so enthused with these adult women that we agreed to spend mornings with them for the rest of our stay. Nefeli, one student with whom I’ve stayed in touch since my first visit in 2013, was excited to spend time together and I was thrilled to learn she has continued her studies in art which were her passion.

We talked about job opportunities, art schools and I encouraged her to stick with it. We took a walk for a gelato and when we parted she turned to me and said “I’m so glad you’re here you build my self-esteem.” With so many difficulties in Crete, she felt that many did not support or appreciate art as a field of study. To have an authentic experience like this has been a gift and I’ve learned so much. I love Greece.

Lynn Lotkowictz is Director of Advertising of Florida Trend magazine.

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