By Maria Iliou
In the context of a recent trip to Latin America, I found myself a few weeks ago in Guatemala, a country that impressed me both for its natural beauty and interesting environment and also for the presence of a vibrant Greek community and the existence of a unique foundation established by the Poulias Brothers.
Guatemala is a rapidly-changing society. The locals like to emphasize that Guatemala is a country in the process of redefining itself. There is the feeling in the air that its social and political life in now evolving fast for the better.
A new middle class is in the process of being formed and the political environment has become much more openly democratic in nature since the end of the civil war in 1996. And it has started to make visible steps toward shedding past phenomena of substantial corruption, particularly after the recent presidential vote and the events that preceded it.
Guatemala, Costa, Rica and Panama are the only countries in Latin America that enjoy a high rate of growth, and this, despite that a very substantial part of the population continues to live in a condition of abject poverty and social isolation.
Its capital, Guatemala City, is home to many foreign nationals and organized minorities among which the Greek Community, though very small in overall numbers, has already been noted for substantial accomplishments.
The first Greeks to arrive in the country were the Papahiou family more than 50 years ago, soon followed by the Dimitraki family from Crete, successful in mattress manufacturing. There are the Pitsakises from Laconia in plastics, and the Molyviatises from Mitylene, who own a chain of restaurants.
All of the local Greeks retain a vibrant Hellenic ethnic identity despite that, to date, the community does not have its own church and dedicated Orthodox priest.
The Pouliases are among the most recent arrivals, immigrating to Guatemala about 15 years ago. Family patriarch George is an American-educated doctor and considered a trailblazer in angiosurgery in Greece.
The matriarch, Maria, after studying in Switzerland, devoted her life to raising their two sons, Ilias and Alexander, who after graduating from Athens College continued their studying abroad in the United Kingdom as well as in the United States.
Ilias earned a master’s degree in engineering from Imperial College in London, and Alexander has degrees in comparative literature from Princeton University and a MBA from Harvard Business School.
After 9/11 and a chain of coincidences, academic research and business ventures brought them to Guatemala.
Alexander and Ilias thought at the time that their stay there would be of a short duration, but this was not to be. After a few months they came to appreciate what the local market offered, grew to love the people, and decided that they would buy out their partner and settle in Guatemala City.
A few years later, they launched a telecommunications business with almost immediate success. This venture, Televida SA, has over 70 employees and operates in 16 Latin American markets as well as in Africa.
THE POULIAS FOUNDATION
About twelve years ago and totally by accident, the Pouliases came in contact with a group of very young children who were using the area in front of the company warehouse as a playground.
A precious bond quickly developed between the Imperial- and Harvard-educated executives and the very underprivileged local youth, and this bond created in the Pouliases the desire to help, to somehow contribute toward a better future for these poverty-stricken children
The Pouliases came to appreciate that their contribution would be much more productive if they would identify gifted children in the poorest neighborhoods of Guatemala City and use them as influential leaders in their own schools and local society. In due course, these kids would hopefully act as role models and become leaders in their communities. That is a concept similar to that which some companies use both in Europe and in the United States, but is something groundbreaking with regard to the poverty and illiteracy of Guatemala City.
The Pouliases decided to offer these children free educational support between ages 4 and 18, complementary to their public school education. They provided free lunch and dinner for them as well.
The brothers’ dream evolved into what is today the Poulias Foundation.
The Foundation adopts a holistic approach to the development of each child’s personality. Emotional intelligence, self-confidence, basic human values, a clear, analytical process of thought and judgement, foreign languages, the use of technology and programming, sports, music, and many other forms of art (theater, poetry, sculpture, painting history of art, and cinema).
As future leaders, the children are trained to possess all the attributes that will allow them to grow to the limit of their abilities and their natural gifts, and to guide their less fortunate counterparts to a brighter future by their own example.
The Poulias Foundation also covers all its children’s medical expenses.
Within the span of a very few years, the Foundation has continued to grow and today, in addition to the one in Guatemala City, a second branch exists in the city of Panajachel, and there are plans for two more.
The Poulias Foundation works with a number of international organizations, including the International Education Funders Group (IEFG) and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF).
Unlike some other organizations of its kind, the Poulias Foundation is completely funded by the two brothers.
The Foundation has lifted 55 exceptional children by giving them the light – fos of knowledge, and they, in turn, can enlighten others.
They are taught the true essence of humanity, of kindness, and the value of education. Of spiritual growth, and the pride of belonging to a society of values.
The Poulias Brothers, in establishing the Foundation that bears their name, have shared with the children of Guatemala City the values by which they were raised in their own Hellenic home.