CNEWA
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All Blessed Are the Ones of Pammakaristos

A home for special children in Greece offers a model program of education and care.

A visit to the Pammakaristos House for Children near Athens is an opportunity for admiration. Once the slow-of-learning were neglected in Greece. Today, Pammakaristos could serve anywhere as a model for the education and care of disturbed children.

The first impression is that of entering a home. There is none of the impersonal sterility of an institution. Children and staff live here in comfort and without fear. Though Greece is rapidly losing the reverence for the traditional close-knit family, here the young women teachers feel at home with the five aging Sisters of Charity who direct and coordinate the training of the children.

Sister Marina Koumandou, the director, is an imposing figure in her religious habit, and one tends to hold back – until her smile breaks through with warmth, her grey-green eyes intelligent and kind. She has known all 4,000 of the children who have passed through the school since 1952.

Pammakaristos, “An Institution for the Child,” is much more than that. Children and young women, ages 3 through 26, can stay as long as 12 years. Each one has special needs because of serious problems: A few were born in mental hospitals: others were abandoned: many came from broken homes or are orphaned. These conditions can cause many problems: physical, mental, and emotional.

155 children now receive care at Pammakaristos. 95 live there; the rest are half-boarders. (Of these, 65 have American sponsors through Catholic Near East Welfare Association.) Since Greece lacks a “foster parent” system, these children would be in desperate straits were it not for Pammakaristos House.

“Unfortunately, the school can accept only girls as boarders,” says Sister Marina. “We have no facilities for boys, except the half-boarders, and then only for kindergarten and the special education schools.”

To be accepted in the school, a child is examined by a team which includes a child psychiatrist, psychologists, and social workers. They decide whether their program can meet her special needs.

The professional staff tends to be young and to have specialized abroad. There are 98 members of the faculty and staff.

Pammakaristos House is open and sunny; the location lovely as only the Greek countryside can he. Blessed by pines and the beautiful Pentelic mountains in the background, the campus lies among flowers, vegetable gardens, and a number of attractive buildings. From the second story terrace, the blue Aegean is visible. The main building has arches that suggest cloisters. Here the administration, living, and dining areas are housed. Other cottages and classrooms are for the many workshops. Something goes on in all of them.

In a small, bright room the speech therapist works with a girl who struggles with her consonants. The faintest success is praised and applauded.

In a whitewashed cottage next to a field of artichokes, five girls play specially designed percussion instruments, while their German-born teacher, Mrs. Loukia Kessler. perches on the piano stool. This music room doubles as dance studio and sports a brand-new wooden floor, barres, and mirrors. Movement and rhythm are important therapeutic tools.

The nursery children, boys and girls, play in the yard under the watchful eye of Mrs. Martha Mazaraki. This teacher from the Netherlands is a highly praised specialist in kindergarten work. “Nothing phases here” the secretary of the school, Mrs. Joanna Diamanti, says with admiration. “She knows how to handle these children.” With patience and ease, Mrs. Mazaraki gives each child the early attention and care which will be encouragement lasting a lifetime. A visitor soon learns that everyone on the staff is familiar with the children’s family backgrounds and situations.

The Pammakaristos House dates from summer camp arrangements after the war. The 1953 earthquakes that devastated the Ionian Sea islands converted it into a long-term shelter for the homeless. In the early 1960s, an influx of Greek emigres from Eastern Europe led to it being a school for refugee children. Soon it became apparent that such children had many other needs.

It converted to a home for special children in 1972, when the Greek government was desperate for special education schools. Just 33 kilometers from Athens, Pammakaristos serves children who otherwise would be throwaways. It gives them a chance to become citizens who can enter the job market or who at least can look after themselves.

The school receives a grant and subsidies for its vocational training programs from Greece and the European Social Fund. But the full range of the school’s functions would not exist without the considerable ecumenical assistance of Christian organizations. Sister Marina credits the Lutherans’ Caritas and the Christian Aid Society. She also praises the help received from Switzerland, Sweden, and Belgium through the years. The chaplains from the nearby American base in Nea Makri “have been very helpful to us,” Sister Marina adds.

The director also notes the support of CNEWA and the sponsors it finds for the children. She hopes that there will be more sponsors, especially if they have a real interest in the girls’ personal welfare. “Sponsors must understand the needs of these children,” she explains. Her young charges are emotionally unable to relate to people who do not show them attention and personal interest.

These children desperately look for the slightest gesture that says, “I am interested in you.” They have difficulty caring about a sponsor in a more personal way because they have been rejected and hurt by adults. Still, it remains important for them to matter to someone.

You can see this need in some of the children who long to hear from home. Mrs. Diamanti, who has been with the school for 25 years, tells of a little girl who doesn’t hear from her mother, who has moved to Italy. Every day the girl asks her, “Did I get my letter?” She doesn’t give up hope that her mother will remember her.

Aware of the girls’ need to be with relatives, the staff sees to it that the children who have homes near Athens can get there for the weekend. But children at Pammakaristos come from all parts of Greece. The staff takes these children on outings, such as to the theater, the cinema, or nearby American ships when they are open to visitors.

The staff also creates living arrangements that strive to resemble a family unit. Boarders live in “vertical families,” in apartments above the main offices. In groups of 15 girls of various ages, they are guided by a young paedagogus, who triples as educator, mother, and sister. The spacious rooms are color-coordinated for each of the five family units on the premises. A sixth is in nearby Rafina, in a donated villa.

The apartments include a large living, dining, and study area, their own kitchen, bedrooms, and baths. The couch and the beds are covered with hand-woven spreads, their traditional Greek motifs intricate and colorful. On the floor, thick flocati rugs capture the light of the afternoon sun and reflect it on the decorated walls. In the afternoon the girls return here to do homework under the supervision of the paedagogue. These paedagogues are attractive and compassionate women who graduated from the school in the years before special education became the focus.

The teachers also are dynamic members of this special place for special children. Christos Bountouvas teaches the six or seven children who have severe learning disabilities. His classroom is bright and cheerful, with cutouts on the walls for use in teaching the children. Today’s lesson is about what they eat. With enormous patience and good humor, Mr. Bountouvas deals with traumatized children who cannot speak. Andreas is one whom at first could hardly stand or sit still. The teacher points to a picture and, with a half smile, Andreas beats the syllables of the Greek word for lettuce.

Mr. Bountouvas stays with each unit for three weeks. He has been with the school for six years and obviously loves teaching these children. He explains how he came to use his method: “I learned by doing, with a lot of help from the speech therapist.”

Another man on the staff, Dimitris Sklavounos, teaches gymnastics and athletic games. He studied in the States but is much happier being here in Greece, in this school that deals with special children. In the late afternoon sun, the girls line up under his direction to shoot baskets. They do it with glee. The surroundings are beautiful, the sounds of the girls happy as they toss the ball and run to get in line for another chance, and another, and another.

Pammakaristos means “all blessed” in Greek. It also means repeated chances for girls who would have none were it not for this school which is a home.

Katerina K. Whitley writes and edits in North Carolina.

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