Daughters of Penelope help Athenian children in need

Daughters of Penelope is a US-based organization for women of Greek descent. In October, 2010, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution commemorating the 80th anniversary of the NGO. The author of the resolution, Representative Carolyn Maloney, explained that ?the organization has strengthened the status of women in society, sheltered the elderly and the abused, educated our youth, promoted Hellenic heritage and raised funds for medical research.?

Active in Greece for more than 20 years, the Athens-based Karyatides 271 have spent the decades focused on one project: the Penelopean Foundation, founded in 1957. The Karyatides, the first overseas Daughters of Penelope chapter, actually precede their affiliate, the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association?s (AHEPA) Greek chapter.

The Karyatides started off in an Athens reeling from World War II and the Greek Civil War. Helen Tranta, now in her 80s and still active as honorary president, was then a young woman returning to Greece from the United States. On her trip back, she was introduced to the then-head of the DOP, Adeline Geo-Karis. Geo-Karis wanted to create a base for members in Athens, so that Greek-American women could ?find something of their own? while in town.

Tranta and Helen Kanellopoulou began the Penelopean Foundation in 1957 and a few years later, the Nea Ionia headquarters was ready to shelter, educate and care for children in need. The idea was born from the shocking fact that during the postwar period, teenage girls were locked up for minor offenses in the Averoff Prison. The girls would be forced to share cells with older prisoners who had committed much more serious crimes.

The chapter decided to build its school in Nea Ionia, which in the late 50s and early 60s was a rough neighborhood. ?Nea Ionia isn?t at all what it used to be,? says Angelique Hatziantoniou, outgoing acting president and treasurer of the day care center.

Until 1975, the Penelopean was a shelter for girls 12 and over. The foundation granted the disadvantaged girls an education that one member remembers was ?similar to a private American boarding school.?

?Needs changed,? Tranta explains of the Karyatides? decision to transform their building from a boarding school to a day care center. In 1975, it became a day care center to aid working or incapacitated mothers who were raising young children with low or no income. Mothers could drop off children aged between 3 months and 5.5 years.

Having served over 3,000 children since it began, the Penelopean is still going strong. ?Working mothers can drop off their children and they know they will be well cared for, ? Tranta explains of the high standards of the center, which fellow Karyatid Jane Bizos says is ultimately ?a tribute to the dedication of Mrs Tranta.?

Tranta remembers when the children were all Greek. Now the day care center is international. The 112 children come from families of little or no income and ?are from all countries. We take children from anywhere,? Tranta says. The center has therefore become a place where children learn Greek. ?This center is a role model in Greece because of the high level of service and care given to the children who come every day,? says Bizos. There is a staff of 15, including nannies and teachers, as well as a cook, doctor and maintenance staff.

Families can apply through the Social Security Foundation (IKA). Alternatively, those who can afford it pay the day care center directly, a small monthly sum based on how much they earn.

The Penelopean Day Care Center was recently given the status of a ?mandatory project? by the Daughters of Penelope, a worthy achievement considering that the organization is reluctant to bestow the honor on projects outside the United States.

But the center is in need of aid. The building must be repaired — from insulated windows to new playground equipment.

The chapter is currently looking for a tenant for their Kolonaki apartment. ?Operating expenses, needs of the facilities and children are always more than the available resources,? Bizos explains. ?The economic crisis has hit everyone; it has hit us too,? says Hatziantoniou. ?But the children will have nowhere to go.?

To find out how you can help, call 210.279.823 or e-mail [email protected]