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Society

Marianna V. Vardinoyannis: Leading by Example

It is not easy to describe in a few words the personality, the work, and the contribution of Marianna V. Vardinoyannis. In an in-depth interview with The National Herald, Vardinoyannis talks about everything, proving once again that what makes her stand out in the eyes of the world is, above all, the consistency of words and actions, honesty, simplicity, greatness of her heart and love for her fellow man. Because as she characteristically says: “Love is power; it is life.” And Vardinoyannis is indeed the personification of love.

She is a Goodwill Ambassador of UNESCO, and was honored by the UN with its highest distinction for humanitarian contribution, the ‘Nelson Mandela Award 2020’. As president of the associations ELPIDA – Association of Friends of Children with cancer and ‘ORAMA ELPIDAS’, as well as of the Marianna V. Vardinoyannis Foundation, Mrs. Vardinoyannis is a pioneer in the fight against childhood cancer and has made significant contributions to the culture of Greece and beyond. She has special ties to the Greek diaspora, is wife of businessman and philanthropis Vardis Vardinoyannis, and is the mother of five children – and is also a grandmother.

Marianna V. Vardinoyannis at the podium for her opening speech during the Nelson Mandela International Day event organized by the Marianna V. Vardinoyannis Foundation at the Zappeion Megaron, Athens, Greece, July 2021. (Photo: Courtesy of Marianna V. Vardinoyannis)
Marianna V. Vardinoyannis on the presentation day of the United Nations Nelson Mandela 2020 Award (July 2020). (Photo: Courtesy of Marianna V. Vardinoyannis)

The National Herald: You are a mother of five. Is the role of grandmother now becoming more prominent?

Marianna Vardinoyannis: I feel truly blessed that God graced me to become the mother of five wonderful children, who now have their own families and have given me grandchildren and great-grandchildren! My family is the most precious thing in my life. And my love for my children was actually multiplied with my grandchildren! No matter how much a child grows up, a mother’s love and care do not waiver in the slightest. This role never changes. Once you have children, you are no longer the same person as you were before: you are a MOTHER. Perhaps grandchildren make you two times a mother!

TNH: You had a special relationship with your mother. How has this relationship affected your life as an adult?

MV: I owe my mother everything. Everything I have achieved in my life, I owe to her. She was a very open-minded person and certainly ahead of her time. She insisted that I study, learn languages, and travel! At the same time, she taught me what love, solidarity, and contribution towards our fellow human beings mean, and this ‘lesson’ determined the course of my life. She taught me, above all, through her example, rather than through her words. Through her life’s stance, her open embrace, her sincerity, her ethics, and her goodness. She was and remains a bright beacon that guides my steps, and even today, her love is my ‘talisman’ in every difficulty life brings before me.

TNH: While your life’s circumstances changed at an early age, you made sure to create more things in terms of substance rather than appearance. How did you achieve that?

MV: My life really evolved in a way I had never imagined. The only desire, all I asked of God, was to have a loving family. Our family and our children were, for Vardis and me, our compass and our top priority. The principles and values we both grew up with are what kept our family united and our feet firmly on the ground. We achieved what we did with great effort and a lot of work and experienced many major hardships. We were never interested in ‘appearances’.

TNH: You and Vardis have a unique bond. What brought you together and kept you so close to this day?

MV: Vardis and I met at a very young age. I was still a high school student when we first met. We got married a few years later, but from the first look we exchanged, we felt that our life’s path would be a common one. Vardis determined my life; he was and is everything to me. The love and ties that united us, and that still unite us, cannot be expressed in words. But it was undoubtedly the result of a conscious effort to always be on each other’s side, with respect, sincerity, and understanding – we managed to be partners throughout these years, having shared joys as well as sorrows, successes, and great hardships.

Mr. Vardis J. Vardinoyannis and Mrs. Marianna V. Vardinoyannis in September 2014. (Photo: Courtesy of Marianna V. Vardinoyannis)
Marianna V. Vardinoyannis at the Acropolis Museum. (Photo: Courtesy of Marianna V. Vardinoyannis)

TNH: You are the founder of the ELPIDA Association of Friends of Children with cancer. ‘ELPIDA’ is synonymous with constant strong (good and bad) emotions. Do you carry them over to your personal life?

MV: ELPIDA has always been a vision and purpose of life and a constant struggle. Thirty-two years ago, I committed to supporting children with cancer and their families – not just financially but primarily as a mother, opening my arms and my heart to them. So, from the very first moment, I was there: at the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit, the Oncology Children’s Hospital, the Guesthouse, and the operating rooms. I know the parents and the children by their first names. Every morning the first phone call is to the Oncology Hospital, so I can find out how our children are doing and what our unit’s needs are. ELPIDA is a big part of my life.

TNH: Where have your activities been focused since you received the Mandela Prize?

MV: The United Nations ‘Nelson Mandela’ Prize is a great honor for me, but also a supreme responsibility. It is the culmination of many years of fighting to protect human rights: the right to health, education, equality, and democracy. I always had the support of Greek society in this struggle, the support of the Greek soul. And that is why I dedicated this award to my country. I have always believed that building a world where everyone can live with dignity, justice, and equality is everyone’s responsibility. In my role as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, as well as through my international action, in my interactions with the Greek Diaspora, and my activities in our homeland, I have found that there is good in each one of us. So, what I consider to be the highest duty is not just to deliver a better world to the younger generation but mainly to teach them humanity, solidarity, contribution, and respect – show them the way to create the world they dream of!

TNH: Man, by nature, constantly pursues happiness. How close to happiness do you feel?

MV: I personally believe that Man, by nature, does not pursue happiness; he seeks love. “The purpose of our life is love,” Andreas Embirikos has written. Only through true love can we attain happiness. You feel happy only when your heart is full of the love you receive and the love you give. I feel truly blessed because I always try to offer true love in my life, and also blessed that I have received so much love.

Μrs. Vardinoyannis wrote her wish – “May the Saint protect the children all over the world” – on the wall of the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine at the World Trade Center while it was under construction in New York, September 2017. Photo: Courtesy of Marianna V. Vardinoyannis
Marianna V. Vardinoyannis with cured children during the 30th Anniversary of ELPIDA Association of Friends of Children with cancer at the Zappeion Megaron in Athens, June 2019. Photo: Courtesy of Marianna V. Vardinoyannis
Mrs. Vardinoyannis with students of the Greek diaspora at the Cathedral School in New York, September 2017. (Photo: Courtesy of Marianna V. Vardinoyannis)

TNH: How did the pandemic and the war impact volunteering in Greece?

MV: The pandemic radically changed our world on all levels: economic, social, and political. But it also changed us as people. Because the distance we were forced to keep from each other made us realize how much we needed to be ‘together’. The pandemic brought an unprecedented wave of solidarity. The brutality of the war, on the other hand, highlighted the value of peace between people. These enormous challenges must serve as lessons for humanity and reasons to bring about change, either collectively or individually.
TNH: Has there ever been any difficulty that broke you?

MV: Never. I have never given up, I have never turned away from any difficulty, and no obstacle has managed to break me. On the contrary, all the blocks made me stronger. “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time, we fall.” This phrase by Nelson Mandela is a guide and compass in my life.

TNH: Are values being lost in our time? How do we safeguard them?

MV: I always follow current affairs very closely and always try to stay in touch with the younger generation, which I truly believe in. Through the ‘Speak Truth to Power’ Program of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Centre, which we are implementing in Greek schools, I have the opportunity to work closely with hundreds of students and educators on a daily basis. Working with them, I see a new generation full of creativity, vision, and inspiration – young kids with morals and values who want to build a better future. But things are never just black or white, and there is certainly the other side of the coin around us, with phenomena that reveal a part of our society that has lost its orientation. Education is our only weapon against such phenomena, which is where our societies must invest. Without education, we cannot hope for a better world. And by education, I don’t mean just education in the strict sense of the word. I am talking about the cultivation of the soul, the effort to pass on to the younger generation the values of respect, solidarity, and contribution, through our words, but mainly through our example.

TNH: What would you say is the conclusion of life?

MV: I would never dare answer such a question. But if I could share some of my thoughts, it would be for everyone to do their best on all levels, with their hearts and their love for their fellow human beings as their compass. Because love is the answer to everything.

The Hellenic Initiative (THI) Board President George P. Stamas and THI Board Chairman Andrew Liveris present the Hellenic-American Leadership Award to Mrs. Vardinoyannis in New York, September 2017. (Photo: Courtesy of Marianna V. Vardinoyannis)
Mrs. Vardinoyannis at the inauguration of the Church of Saint Anna at the Oncology Children’s Hospital ‘Marianna V. Vardinoyannis-ELPIDA’. The church is a donation of the Vardis J. Vardinoyannis family (October 2019). (Photo: Courtesy of Marianna V. Vardinoyannis)

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