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Five Things I Learned Researching AHEPA’s History

I have been researching AHEPA’s history for the past three years for a book covering its one-hundred-year history, currently being published by AHEPA and the Athens-based Hellenic American Union. The book turned out almost twice as big as I originally anticipated. There was a lot to research, a lot to absorb, and a lot to write about. Here are five interesting things I learned about AHEPA while working on this project.

First, AHEPA has managed to continuously adapt to the times and been adjust its programming. ‘The Order’, as it is known, began life in 1922 working towards the Americanization of the Greek immigrants and their integration into American society in order to protect them from racism and xenophobia. As this became successful by the late 1920s, AHEPA began cultivating ties with the homeland by organizing annual excursions to Greece and sending aid in response to natural disasters. In the 1930s, with Greek-Americans feeling the effects of the Great Depression, AHEPA added a third plank to its purpose, generating welfare resources for its members and the community, and doing so, induce them to remain within the organization or to join it. Had it not added those two additional goals it risked becoming a victim of its own success. The more Greek immigrants became American citizens and adopted American ways, the more AHEPA’s original purpose became redundant.

Second, in reinventing itself, AHEPA kept adding programs and widening its activities. Currently, its website lists six clusters of programs: athletics, education, housing, public health, public policy, and veterans. Behind each label lies a wide range of projects, domestic and international. These have been added incrementally over the years, with very few existing ones being abandoned. For example, a pre-WWII sanatorium in New Mexico is one of the few projects that was wound down.

We may now hear more about the Supreme Lodge activities than in the past, especially in the area of public policy, but those are only the tip of the iceberg. Local chapters across the country display remarkable energy and dedication to several forms of public service, often with very little publicity.

Third, AHEPA has continually faced the challenge of retaining members and recruiting new ones, especially ones who are not middle-aged or retirees. Reports submitted to supreme conventions on the membership issue echo each other year in year out with small differences, such as calling for the use of the internet or introducing business networking. In the past, AHEPA could proudly claim many Greek-American ‘firsts; such as the excursions to Greece, sending students on visits, the Congressional Banquet, partnering with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, and honoring the early immigrants at Ellis island. Many other Greek-American organizations now replicate these activities.

But AHEPA might also want to take note of successful innovations launched by other organizations, such as the Greek American Foundation’s popular Forty Under 40 awards and celebrations and the Hellenic American Leadership Council’s daily Greek Current Podcasts that have a wide audience among young professionals.

Fourth, AHEPA dealt with an issue involving embezzlement of funds in the early 1990s swiftly and decisively and with a new leadership the Order was soon back on course. It could have turned out differently, so kudos to all those who help the Order recover so effectively. It also suggests AHEPA can afford to confront head on the recent revelations about the abuses surrounding the adoption of Greek children by parents in the United States in the 1950s. Initially AHEPA was heavily involved but it pulled out of the program when financial irregularities came to light. A well-meaning project unfortunately included instances of greed and also mismanagement at the expense of the welfare of some of those children. Several of them, now in their sixties and seventies, are trying to discover their hidden past and also become Greek citizens again. AHEPA, which aspires to be a bridge between the United States and Greece, has expressed a willingness to help. This could make all the difference because Greece is obdurately and inexcusably slow in granting Greek citizenship to Diaspora Greeks.

Fifth, even though having a separate women’s organization – in this case the Daughters of Penelope – sounds old fashioned in this day and age, this arrangement appears to work very well for both AHEPA and the Daughters. By way of underplaying this separation between men and women that some may think outdated, the Order speaks frequently of the AHEPA family, which includes not only the Daughters but also the two youth organizations, the Sons of Pericles and the Maids of Athena. Emphasizing the notion of being a family also resonates with a core cultural value of Hellenes worldwide and reassures any potential members concerned about the organizational separation of men and women. It is another sign of how AHEPA has evolved from an organization promoting Americanization to one that seeks a balance between American and Hellenic values.

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