ATHENS – In many senses, it is remarkable how Greece has been able to endure going from crisis to crisis over the past ten years. In addition to inner strength individuals and families have drawn upon, however, there have been effective, indeed, heroic organizations to help the neediest.
Father Antonios Papanikolaou has roots in Chios, where his brother Fr. Dionysios is Abbot of the renowned Nea Moni monastery. After studying theology and education and becoming a priest, he founded ‘Kivotos tou Kosmou’ – Ark of the World. The ark isn’t for saving animals during a global deluge, it protects children and young mothers from hellish environments here and now in Greece.
“It is a philanthropic institution that looks out for and supports children in need and danger, but also the mothers, who are not in supportive environments. Out of despair they turn to various institutions they hope will take their children for a certain amount of time until they get a job and can support them,” he said.
“But in these circumstances, what we offer is welcoming them as a family. We don’t just take the child. We know from experience that once the mother abandons the child to an institution, we lose her.”
Kivotos is best known for what they do to help children directly, the orphans and the ones that had to be rescued from abusive and dangerous parents.
“But our second mission is our program for the mothers and their children. We have more than 150 apartments that we rent so that the mothers, who are in need and in danger, can keep their children. They are impoverished and don’t have the ability on their own to meet even basic expenses. We pay the rent so the mother does not abandon her child to an institution; so she can raise it herself.”
Kivotos does more than just provide housing. “We educate the women and teach them a trade, so that can become cooks, beauticians, etc. We also help them obtain scholarships to other training programs.
The program is crucial because Father Antonios says, “the heaviest psychic trauma a child faces is to lose his mother…so, Kivotos has chosen the more difficult path. The easiest thing to do is to just take the child.”
They also educate the women to be better and more conscientious parents. “We show them what it means to be a mother.”
Many of the girls are unwed, teenage mothers who have been abandoned by the fathers of the children and are desperate. Kivotos also gives them legal protection by informing them of their rights.
Father Antonios also explained that, “we also give the girls psychological support and therapy from our specialists – psychiatrists, psychotherapists, social workers, speech therapists etc. They are helped to understand how they ended up in such a situation and given tools to overcome the hardship and traumatic circumstances they faced in their lives so they can become, adults – mature adults.
Kivotos has been offering its unique and effective programs for 22 years.
In Athens throughout Greece there are programs – often related to the Church of Greece – that provide homes and a positive environment for abused children. One example is the Christodouliou Foundation in Haidari established as an orphanage by Father Apostolos Christodoulou in 1943 that The National Herald recently visited.
Father Antonios noted that, “the Church is present for such people, often quietly,” without calling attention to itself, but Kivotos’ efforts are in many ways unique and have expanded beyond Athens.
“At the moment, we are taking care of 220 children, without their parents, and we support another 150 single-parent families, children with their mothers. Imagine how many other spaces would have been needed for children abandoned by their mothers – some of these women have two, three, or four children. With this program we are stopping the filling up of orphanages and the destruction of the lives of the mothers, too.”
He pointed out that that there are wider social implications for Greece, with its dangerous demographic decline. “We help them keep their children and raise them in a family environment. We become their supportive environment.”
With main offices in Kolonos, Athens, Kivotos also has day care programs for the children while their mothers go to work which are also open to outside children in which 400 participate.
Unfortunately, Greece cannot offer the support similar institutions get in the rest of Europe and the United States and Kivotos has bot relied on government funding.
“We are maintained by the donations of the people. We hope to become better known in Greece and the Diaspora so that our endeavors can grow,” said Father Antonios.
DUTIES AND DANGERS DURING THE PANDEMIC
The coronavirus is now the third massive crisis faced by the people of Greece in the past 10 years, after the economic crisis and the refugee/migrant influx. Kivotos has sent staff to Chios take care of more than 270 unaccompanied minors. Father said “we helped reunite them with their parents.”
The mission of Kivotos “continues in the context of the coronavirus measures. We still go into the homes of the children. We cannot abandon them,” he said.
Like business and other philanthropic institutions enduring the lockdown, Kivotos’ work is endangered because the presentations and visits that generated funds from private citizens have ground to a halt.
They do receive occasional support from other institutions such as The Hellenic Initiative (THI). “We approached them and they became interested in our work with unwed or abandoned mothers and their children. Their 2019 Gala in London raised funds for Kivotos’ mission.