I would have never imagined that someone could purchase a tree as a gift for a wedding or baptism, or even a birthday present! I must admit that I was impressed when Maria Papastathi, Deputy Director of Development at The Hellenic Initiative (THI), described THI’s major campaign called Plant a Tree in Greece, whose objective is the reforestation of the fire-stricken areas in Evia and Attica.
THI is a not-for-profit organization that was formed by a group of Greek-Americans ultimately joined by Hellenes throughout the world who decided to help Greece during the difficult years of the financial crisis.
Papastathi is involved in fundraising, where she seeks out new donors and sponsors for THI’s programs. Fundraising is generally more easy to conduct in the United States than in Greece, where donations are discouraged and people looking for sponsors often feel like beggars. However, Papastathi’s personality was formulated in the friendly confines of a quaint Athens neighborhood, hearing the voices of loved ones, friends and neighbors, who enjoyed helping one another, laughing, playing, and interacting with each other.
It is precisely this human quality of her childhood that helped her immensely in developing the communication skills that captivate others, which she combines so seamlessly together with her characteristically Greek beauty, rooted in her family origins from Messolonghi and Arta.
With studies in European Civilization from the Hellenic Open University and a graduate degree in Nonprofit Management from the New School in New York City, Papastathi is a major asset for THI because she faithfully holds on to the principles that her family handed down to her, along with her beautiful smile, transparency, hard work, and tireless efforts to help the new generation of Greeks still reeling from the crises taking place in the homeland, one after another.
She sat down with TNH to discuss her life and career at THI, whose work she speaks of with deep appreciation. Together with her beloved colleagues, she works tirelessly to provide hope and funding to young Greeks to ensure their survival and development.
The National Herald: How would you describe the environment in which you grew up?
Maria Papastathi: I grew up in a suburban family in the Athens districts of Ano Ilisia and Holargos. I admired downtown Athens ever since I was a young girl and would visit it whenever I had the opportunity. I liked the noise and crowds. That’s why I think I love New York so much. I have two sisters, who are twins and four years younger than me, with whom I am very close. Since I grew up with two sisters, I never felt lonely. Our house was never empty. It was always open to neighbors, relatives, and friends who would pay us visits – often unannounced. My mother didn’t work when I was very young, and so she was always by our side offering us a lot of love and care. She is the typical Greek mother, who even today worries if I am dressed warm enough on cold winter days.
I could always find friends to play with and spend my free time in Ano Ilisia. I think I belong to the last generation of children raised in Athens who got to experience the concept of a neighborhood, with children playing in the lots, carefree and without anything to fear. Summer vacation at the beach was the best time of the year. We would usually spend our vacation at the seaside village of Kastro in Ilia, which is located underneath the medieval castle of Chlemoutsi, built by the Franks.
TNH: What are your memories from childhood?
MP: In my younger years, I was a shy child with a great imagination. I would spend endless hours playing with toys and forming stories and scenarios in my head. I also read a lot. I remember when I was around 10 years old, I spent an entire summer reading endlessly. Still, I had plenty of friends from the neighborhood, with whom we would play various games on the dead-end street below our apartment, in an empty lot, and in a nearby square. However, I kept the best company with my sisters. As the eldest, I considered it my duty to teach them things and pass on my knowledge. I made a lot of friends at school as I got older and we continue to be friends until today. My three best friends, with whom I speak on a daily basis, even now that I live in the United States, know me since I was a child.
TNH: Tell us a little bit about how you started your career at ΤΗΙ.
MP: After finishing my internship at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation in New York and beginning my graduate studies, a friend of mine named Olga Bornozi forwarded a job description to me from THI for a part time position. Since I was familiar with the organization, I decided to apply since I thought it would be an interesting job to have until I completed my studies. Five years later, I am still there, working as a full-time employee in another position and maintaining the same enthusiasm for my work I had when I first started.
TNH: What do you do at THI?
MP: I work in fundraising at THI. I am the Deputy Director of Development. I design and implement campaigns, seek out new donors and sponsors for THI’s programs, and maintain ties with existing donors. With the help of these donations, we provide grants to non-profit organizations that we support in Greece. In addition, I organize the annual gala in New York and London. Both events are fairly big projects that come with their own unique set of challenges. The first one is challenging because it is very large in size (with 900 attendees annually) and the second is challenging because I have to organize it from afar. Since the nature of my job entails coming into contact with lots of people, I never get bored. I find it very pleasing to meet new people, learn about their roots in Greece, their interests, and the reason why they are donating. Also, I feel very fortunate because I have very good colleagues. The entire team is composed of quality professionals who are dynamic, team players, and have the same moral values as I do.
TNH: When was THI founded and for what purpose?
MP: THI was founded in 2012. It is a not-for-profit organization that began following the initiative of a group of Greek-Americans who felt the need to aid Greece during the years of the financial crisis and help it turn the page and start a new chapter. THI’s mission is to bring together Hellenes of the Diaspora and all Philhellenes who wish to help Greece through philanthropy. It provides assistance in handling crises, and especially in supporting vulnerable social groups. Moreover, it supports new Greek enterprises by executing programs and funding initiatives aimed at retraining or providing new skills to thousands of Greeks, young and old alike. With time, THI spread out to other nations as well. We now have a presence in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
TNH: What prospects do you believe exist in Greece for the new generation of entrepreneurs?
MP: I believe that young entrepreneurs in Greece have many prospects that will allow them to develop their ideas, and by extension, their companies. For starters, I see a major interest from foreign investors to come and invest in the Greek startup ecosystem and help young businesspeople showcase their value. Nowadays, people trust Greek companies and Greece in general. Also, the fact alone that there is an increased interest in entrepreneurship in Greece is very encouraging. I have seen a lot of activity in Greece in the fintech sector and I hope that it grows even further. This sector is expected to develop rapidly worldwide since traditional banks have begun strengthening their footprint in digital banking. I also hope that more women will take the leadership reigns in startup companies – especially those related to technology. Young women should draw inspiration from successful female entrepreneurs like former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty and follow career paths in the fields of technology and computer science. Just like the famous scientist Karen Sparck Jones says, “computer science is too important to leave to men!”
TNH: In terms of THI’s philanthropic goals, can you tell us in greater detail about some of the most important contributions it made to help Greece during the years of the financial crisis?
MP: First of all, THI has managed to unite the Greeks of the Diaspora using philanthropy to work toward our common goal of supporting Greece. This is something very important in and of itself. Second, until today, it has provided around $20 million in funding to non-governmental organizations. When THI was founded, Greece was in a very bad situation, mired deep in financial crisis. It made front-page headlines and everyone was wondering about the country’s future. THI and its board members wanted to turn the crisis into an opportunity for change. With thousands of donors from 47 different countries and with over 220 grants to NGOs in Greece, I think it has succeeded very well in its mission.
With the support of Coca-Cola, THI has been a longtime sponsor of ReGeneration, the nation’s largest program dedicated to reversing so-called brain-drain. Through this program, young people find jobs and don’t have to go abroad in search of work. Programs like Venture Garden, Venture Fair, and Connect the Dots support young entrepreneurs, while the Venture Impact Awards offer small sums to support companies and NGOs that have a social impact. Additionally, we have worked together with various organizations to support thousands of children and families who are fighting cancer, poverty, as well as abuse. We also support refugees – primarily unaccompanied minors.
Now, due to the rapid increase in destructive wildfires, we have started a major campaign known as Plant a Tree in Greece, which is dedicated to the reforestation of fire-stricken areas impacted by last year’s forest fires. This past spring, we managed to plant over 4,200 trees. We will continue our reforestation efforts in the fall and hope to increase our numbers significantly. Through this campaign, people can ‘buy’ trees to celebrate an event like a birthday, wedding, etc. and send a certificate as a gift. The trees that are purchased by donors are planted in the fire-stricken areas of Evia and Attica.
It is worth noting that every donation received by THI from contributors fully benefits our programs in Greece, since the board members cover the organization’s annual operational expenses. I believe this means a lot to our donors and I hope that it continues in the future.
TNH: What does philanthropy mean to you?
MP: For me, philanthropy is a private initiative that promotes a world of equal opportunities and love. It is innate and connected to empathy. I am not a proponent of Hobbesian philosophy, which claims that human nature leads people to endless and fierce competition for the sake of domination and control, without any concern for their fellow men and women. I believe in the positive side of human nature and in the solidarity that civilized people show for their fellow humans. Greeks have proven that they empathize with others on many levels. The concept of ‘philoxenia’ (hospitality to strangers), which has existed since ancient times, is indicative of their sensitivity and solidarity for their fellow man, who just might happen to be a foreigner.
In a world that is clearly inequitable, offering a helping hand can mean a lot to some people in need. People can exercise philanthropy by offering not only money, but also by volunteering their services or even offering in-kind donations. Philanthropy makes us not only better people, but also happier people. There is a study that was conducted on philanthropy that proved that people who make donations feel a sense of euphoria when they contribute, which makes them feel happier.
I firmly believe that happiness comes not just from the things that people possess or enjoy, but also from what they have to offer. The feeling we get when we give something to others is priceless.
TNH: You deal with donations and grants – a very delicate and at the same time difficult sector. How easily do wealthy people give money for philanthropic causes?
MP: This depends on each person’s upbringing and the degree to which they have cultivated the concept of philanthropy in themselves. Although philanthropy is a Greek term that is used worldwide, unfortunately, Greeks do not play a leading role in this area. Nonetheless, they are compassionate and give whatever they can when a major need arises. Greeks of the Diaspora, who are fairly wealthy, could contribute a lot more to philanthropic foundations and organizations like THI to help the Greeks of Greece who are in need, live below the poverty line, or need a small stream of revenue to develop their business. All of us have room to improve in this area and there are a lot of opportunities to do so. Our motto in a lot of THI’s campaigns is that “every little bit counts.” Even a small contribution could make a big difference in the life of a person who finds themselves in need.
TNH: Is it easy to become a member of THI and what are the reasons why people should join? Are there any conditions?
MP: We don’t have members at THI. Everyone is free to participate and become a ‘member’ through contributions or by purchasing tickets to our events. Also, people can sign up for our monthly newsletter via our website and receive updates on our charitable community and the programs we are implementing in Greece. The only group that has members are the New Leaders, which is a group of young professionals up to the age of 45 who network with each other, organize philanthropic events, volunteer their efforts, and participate in various THI programs, as well as our galas in New York and London. It costs between $100-250 per year to become a member of the New Leaders.
TNH: You are a mother and wife. How do you manage you family life with your professional obligations?
MP: That’s a very good question! It is not easy to optimally combine one’s professional life with their family life – especially for women. The question of how a woman can combine her career with motherhood is one that cannot be easily answered. There are a lot of factors at play, and there are always unpredictable difficulties that can arise, along with a lot of guilt. Most women who take on this dual role often wonder if they should leave their job for the sake of their family. I had the fortune (or misfortune) of not being able to work during the first years I spent living in the United States, when my son was an infant, because I had a residence permit that allowed me to live in the country, but not work here. I had a hard time dealing with this psychologically, and fortunately, I managed to purse my graduate studies back them, which allowed me to indirectly feel like I was advancing professionally. Today, things are different. I spend many hours working at THI throughout the week. The truth is that I have a lot of support from my husband, Nondas Virvidakis, who always stands by me despite having a very demanding job himself. The secret to my success in maintaining balance between work and my family life lies in the fact that I have a partner who stands by me and supports me, helps me raise our child, and is there for me whenever I need him. In general, I would say that there is solidarity and understanding between us. This is something that has been developed over time, considering that we faced many challenges alone (our families live in Greece) until we could find our footing here in the United States, after leaving crisis-mired Greece with a one-year-old child. As for our son, he is a wonderful boy who is pretty independent for his age and shows a lot of understanding.
TNH: How do you see the world, which is currently going through such chaos, and are you optimistic for the future?
MP: I am optimistic by nature, but honestly, with so many terrible things happening all around us, I have begun to lose my positive outlook. Nevertheless, I believe that the problems we are facing will be resolved at some point and we will be able to stand on our own two feet. Regarding the pandemic, we are already starting to see light at the end of the tunnel. The good news is that the Greek economy has recovered. The GDP grew by 7 percent in the first quarter of 2022. Greece had a very high tourist turnout over the summer. This success attained by the Greek tourist sector is expected to ameliorate some of the losses that are being caused by the war in Ukraine. Of course, there is a huge and justifiable concern about the coming winter, since the energy crisis is intensifying. Global instability might get worse until the leaders of nations manage to restore balance and world peace. I hope the war in Ukraine – which is so close to Greece – ends soon, without any further losses. Let’s hope for the best!
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