CNEWA

ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Thursday’s Child Has a Journey Ahead

Greek children with special needs find an oasis in a children’s home called Pammakaristos.

The answer to part of this riddle is a small Greek girl named Paraskevi. She was named after St. Paraskevi, protector of the eyes, the only saint whose name is a day of the week – Friday.

This little girl Friday attends school at the Pammakaristos Children’s Home, in the town of Nea Makri, a 40-minute drive from Athens. The dark-haired girl with slightly crossed eyes is a child with special needs – a Thursday child who still has a way to go. Just how far and fast she can go is in the hands of her parents, her teachers and volunteers and donors who give time and money to maintain this unique foundation.

Today Nea Makri, once a simple coastal village, is a resort town of 10,000 whose population explodes to 20,000 in the summer. In the 1960’s, a U.S. naval station located there added to its fame, but long before then the town was known for the good works of the Pammakaristos Sisters.

Paraskevi is one of 242 children who attend the Pammakaristos school, where children with special needs are taught to deal with the life that has been dealt them.

The home’s birth occurred in April 1945 when, following World War II, the Greek Catholic Exarch of Constantinople, Bishop George Calavassy, asked the Pammakaristos Sisters to organize a summer camp for children whose childhoods were literally torn apart by war.

By 1952, the program was so successful that a permanent site was discussed. Financial aid came from Europe, especially Switzerland and Belgium. With this aid the sisters bought land in Nea Makri.

The first facility hosted 88 children for the summer. The second summer, the number doubled. In August 1953, a natural disaster followed the man-made one: The Ionian Islands, which lie between Greece and Italy, were hit by earthquakes. Again Pammakaristos Children’s Home was called to take in children; again more permanent buildings were needed.

More earthquakes brought children from Santorini and Volos in the Cyclades Islands. One of these little refugees was Maritsa Kambouroglou. As an adult Maritsa studied special education and returned the favor to Pammakaristos and its sisters – she has taught at the institution for many years.

This organization that “adopted” children with open arms was adopted itself in 1956 by Radda Barnen, a Swedish charity organization. Radda Barnen’s contributions were helpful when Russian refugee families began flooding into Greece in the late 50’s.

With this assistance, which continued until 1971, the home could do more than just offer shelter – it could organize boarding facilities and launch an education program.

A helping hand came from the nearby U.S. naval station, which donated a tanker of drinking water each day; fresh water was always in short supply along the seacoast, where wells drew only brackish water.

Father Robert Ecker was the Roman Catholic chaplain at the naval station from 1963 to 1965. He remembers fondly the great rapport between the “Seabees” and the children, sisters and staff. To this day, Father Ecker remains a strong advocate and supporter of the foundation.

As years passed, social earthquakes brought with them a new wave of kids. Some came from broken homes; others were abandoned and orphaned. And then came the children who have been the main focus of the home for the last 20 years: children with Down’s syndrome, autism and mental retardation.

Today, 242 children walk happily to their classrooms in a greatly expanded facility. Most arrive each morning in buses provided by the home. For 45 children, however, Pammakaristos is home. These children are boarders and their living accommodations are cozy; the children live in family units with other children and a paedagogos, an adult staff member who acts as a dorm parent. The children board for a number of reasons: the distance from home to Pammakaristos may be great or their family situation may be critical.

During summer vacation the boarders accompany the sisters and staff on errands and excursions. Once during the summer they travel as a group on vacation.

Families of children with special needs are often broken by divorce or crack under the strain of handling both a special child and his or her siblings. Often, the responsibility of counseling the family or parent of a special child goes to the staff, along with the care and education of that child.

The care given at Pammakaristos is extremely well known – places for new students are few, but demand is high. Desperate families often come to the home to find help. Parents whose only child has special needs may have another child later with the hope that the sibling will care for the brother or sister when the parents are gone.

The youngest child schooled at Pammakaristos is three, the oldest, 27.

Government funds and assistance from the European Union account for 70 to 80 percent of the institution’s budget needs. The difference, however, is often hard to make up.

A large wall plaque in the foyer lists donors of many years, including CNEWA. In fact, the Pammakaristos Children’s Home is one of CNEWA’s oldest projects, undertaken in 1952. CNEWA continues to assist the home today; many of its children benefit from CNEWA’s Needy Child Program. Over the years, 554 children have had CNEWA sponsors. In 2001, 75 children were enrolled in the program; 42 have sponsors.

As the children arrive each morning, they greet each other as long lost friends. Best friends pair off; small groups cling to each other to talk, laugh and share secrets and the latest gossip. If there is any common denominator among these kids it is enthusiasm for school, a virtual “comfort zone,” where acceptance and understanding are as normal as the children are special.

Recreation areas at Pammakaristos are plentiful. An enclosed playground full of trees and equipment attracts the little ones. A basketball court bounces with would-be Michael Jordans while shady spots with tables and chairs and a snack kiosk provide older students with a quiet place to socialize.

When the bell rings, the enthusiasm transfers from outside to indoors.

Thirty classroom teachers plus special subject teachers cover all the bases. A ratio of one to six plus a helper is maintained in classes with severely mentally handicapped children.

In the nursery school, Martha Mazaraki has kept her classes busy for more than a decade.

These nursery classes do Sesame Street proud. On Thursday, Pempti in Greek, Martha took the opportunity to practice the “p” sound. Each child offered a word. For starters came the Greek words for “pedal” and “hoof.” Then came “Pinocchio” and “Pokemon,” parrot, fork, window, duck, seashell, pilot, butterfly.A special-needs child named Yorgos contributed “dinosaur,” his favorite subject.

Another game got all the children on their feet. They walked around the room, listening to recorded music. When the music stopped, they too had to stop. The one who stopped last had to sit down. The child who could “stop on a drachma” would ultimately win the game.

It’s easy to fall in love with these little ones. But the reality of their situation is that, as their bodies mature, in most cases their minds do not. Their futures are a concern to all who work at the foundation.

Working hand in hand alongside schooling is an effective vocational program. Any student over 15 can learn ceramics, carpet making, weaving, sewing and machine embroidery, pottery, home economics, agriculture or computer science. Skilled at their craft, students produce items that are sold at the annual bazaar at the end of June.

All the children, whether boarders or day students, eat lunch at the home. Pammakaristos grows much of its own food and even raises pigs, rabbits and chickens. Eggs are so plentiful they are sold in the market.

The “main man” at the Pammakaristos Children’s Home is Sister Marina Coumandou, whose name is synonymous with the home. As proud as she is looking back at the home’s 50-plus years of service, she sees that the future holds as much promise and as many hurdles as the past. Her brow is often furrowed.

But on the basketball court, handing out trophies at the year-end tournaments, she was all smiles.

With Greece hosting the 2004 Olympics, the enthusiasm for athletic participation is high. The school’s best athletes compete regularly at meets, and in past Special Olympic events they have won their share of medals.

No one expects to sit on past laurels, however. The road is long; the marathon is waiting to be run in the classrooms and in the workshops as well as on the court and the track.

Paraskevi, the Friday girl, and everyone at the Pammakaristos Children’s Home wants to share that ancient runner’s cry: “Rejoice! We conquer!”

Marilyn Raschka, our Beirut correspondent, filed this report from Athens.

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