Habitat for Humanity opens in Greece

A home for children living in protective custody under the care of the Smile of the Child welfare group is soon to be reconstructed by Friends of Habitat for Humanity, Greater Athens (FoHfH), which was officially launched in Athens last night. Representing Habitat for Humanity, an international organization that provides volunteers to work on decent, affordable housing in areas where homes are substandard or non-existent, the group has already repainted the Hellenic Society for Disabled Children (ELEPAP) center in Pangrati and two centers for refugee children, the Ark («Kivotos,» run by a Greek Orthodox priest), and the Multicultural Day Care Center. The group uses volunteer labor and donated materials and funds and is registered as a non-governmental organization in Greece. It is committed to providing «moral, financial and technical assistance to individuals, families and organizations (schools, clinics, community centers) in need of decent housing, as well as to repair or restore their buildings at no profit.» FoHfH President Connie Burke spoke to Kathimerini English Edition ahead of last night’s inauguration, which was attended by Health and Social Solidarity General Secretary Ioanna Despotopoulou, US Ambassador to Greece Charles P. Ries and other officials. «The backbone of Habitat for Humanity is volunteerism,» Burke said. «People volunteer to go in and reconstruct and refurbish somebody’s home. The core of Habitat is a huge database of volunteers. They can be anyone from an ambassador to your next door neighbor, as long as they are over 16 years of age. Our biggest job so far has been repainting the ELEPAP center in Pangrati. A company in Athens donated the paints and brushes – in fact everything down to the paper for the floor. In the future we are going to do more ambitious projects that need structural work, so we will be hiring professional engineers and contractors. That money will come from donations and membership.» There are 120 founding members, but the group hopes to have 5,000 more members over the next few months. Burke is also to visit the US shortly to set up a chapter of FoHfH in Sacramento, California to ask Greek Americans or friends of Greece in the US to donate money to help eliminate poverty housing in Greece. «The more money we get, the more ambitious the projects,» Burke said. Already FoHfH has registered a large number of volunteers in Greece, who will also provide teams to go to sites in Europe where a Habitat «build» as they call it, is taking place. «Greek teams will go to help someone build a home or community center and Habitat groups from other countries will also be coming to work on projects here,» Burke said. «We call this a ‘vacation with a purpose’ so if there are families around the world who would like to come to Greece and work for Habitat, we invite them, offer them accommodation and they help us build.» FoHfH is about to begin its first major project in Greece. «We are going to take on the reconstruction of the first building ever used for the Smile of the Child [a non-governmental welfare organization] in Patissia, which has extensive earthquake damage,» said Burke. «The building belongs to the Municipality of Athens, which has agreed to give the Smile of the Child a 20-year lease if Habitat repairs the building. The Smile of the Child will then be able to house 24 children in this particular building, and they are desperate for housing.» Habitat has secured pro bono evaluations from engineers and has found contractors willing to do the work at cost. «Nothing is free. It is so important that we get the best engineers. We want quality people working on quality housing. This house also has a garden so we are looking for gardeners – that’s easy, you will always find ‘plant’ people and ‘tree’ people willing to give their time and expertise,» she said «Once people know Habitat is also in Greece they will want to help. People want to make a difference. We have also had wonderful support from the government and the Municipality of Athens,» added Burke. The two honorary life presidents in perpetuity of Habitat in Greece will be the current US ambassador and mayor of Athens. «It was former US ambassador Tom Miller whose idea it was to bring Habitat to Greece and it was he who set up the original dialogue with Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat International in the US,» Burke said. «NGOs do so much to help the disadvantaged. We provide housing. We work with hammer, nails and brushes. We go into these clinics and community centers that can barely survive with the donations they are getting. We help make their premises better.» On November 2, Habitat is holding a joint fund raiser with the Pan-Hellenic Women’s Association at the Athens Concert Hall, which is supported by the Niarchos Foundation. All proceeds go to Habitat International to rebuild homes for Hurricane Katrina victims in the New Orleans area. «It has been made clear by every sponsor that not one ticket will be given away,» Burke said. «Everybody, including committee members and relatives of the performers (who are appearing free of charge), will be buying their tickets so we can let the people of New Orleans know that Greece cares.» For further information call the Habitat office in Athens: 210.418.2251.