Irini waits patiently in a queue that looks similar to the ones outside banks and public services. Nobody appears to complain about the wait. Calmness prevails. We are at the food bank in Acharnes, northwestern Athens. Those who are here are in line because the NGO Together for Children is distributing children's shoes to needy families.
Irini is at most 50 years old. She could be someone you've come across at a bank or sitting at the table next to yours drinking coffee with friends. She's here because she cannot afford to buy shoes for her daughters. “I never believed I would end up like this,” she tells us, with a smile of the kind made to hold back tears. Her eldest daughter is in the second year of high school. Her youngest is 13 and has autism. Irini had a job until five months ago. She worked as a janitor at the Olympic Village health clinic.
Her ex-husband does not help her financially. “I was a woman that had it all. How did I end up in this situation?” she asks, then takes a deep breath to say, “My children have eaten from the local food bank.” She stops as if she's said the worst thing in the world. “Now I've hardened them to not be ashamed. They try not to show it. The older one has gotten used to it and now says that we're lucky we at least have such things as food banks.”
It is her turn. She shows the Together for Children volunteers her papers. “What size would you like?” she's asked. She tells them her daughters' shoe sizes, and then she receives a pair for each and takes a look at them. “They look nice,” she observes. For three years, Together for Children has been distributing TOMS brand shoes provided by the company as part of the One For One program: For every pair of TOMS shoes a customer buys, the company donates a free pair of shoes to someone in need. This year, more than 30,000 pairs of shoes will be distributed to kids throughout the country, in coordination with 200 organizations that support poor children. The children accompany their parents to a place where the shoes are being distributed, try them on to find the right size, and then walk out with a new pair on their feet.
“It is a very good initiative because you know where you're giving to, and who you're helping,” says Nikos Giotas, a Together for Children social worker. “Every year the number of those taking part grows. Needs are increasing, but so is the number of suppliers. It would be nice for there to be no need for this, but unfortunately there is. Shoes are costly and, as we all know, children's feet grow quite fast.
The distribution in Acharnes proceeds calmly. As soon as schools let out in the afternoon, the line quickly grows long. “The needs in our local area are great,” says Deputy Mayor Giorgos Stavrou. “The area is plagued by unemployment,” he adds. A total of 2,170 families are aided by the food bank and other organizations run by the municipality.
Irini's family is one of them. “Of course, my children's father doesn't help. The state shouldn't have to provide for them like this. Why should they suffer? I did not bring two children into this world in order to burden them,” she says. She smiles again and this time as a result of true happiness. “I will be graduating with a certificate from the Second Chance School of Acharnes this summer. I was encouraged by my eldest daughter. For years I've tried to find a better job, but I couldn't because I'd stopped going to school when I was only 13, in order to work. Now I have a chance. My biggest motivation is that my children feel proud to see their mother working. They never ask me for anything but they feel a sense of stability.
Next year, her eldest daughter will finish high school. “She wants to go into one of the military schools. She wants the stability, even though she has experience as an occupational therapist due to her younger sister's autism. They're both such good kids. I'm so lucky to have them,” she says.