Andrew woke up on a recent Friday morning, had a quick breakfast and headed to the Church of Aghia Varvara. Once there, he uncovered the baskets of bread and started slicing the loaves. He had to be ready on time because a large crowd was expected to gather soon in the courtyard for the daily food handout, one of the biggest in the northern port city of Thessaloniki.
The American College of Thessaloniki, a postgraduate, nonprofit institution run by Anatolia College, offers high-caliber education, but for 18-year-old Andrew it is the experience of giving food to the needy every Friday morning that he finds riveting – a real lesson, in every sense of the word.
“I have worked as a volunteer back home – but nothing as enlightening as this. For a lot of us who come from privileged backgrounds, this really puts everything into perspective. It is one thing to watch it on the news and entirely another to see people in front you who can’t afford food. The refugee crisis is different on the screen than it is when you see huge groups of people,” he says.
Andrew Croy from Massachusetts is one of 300 students who made the trip in September to Thessaloniki to attend the fall semester at ACT as part of the study abroad program. The students come from some of the finest educational institutions in the US, such as Brown, Rutgers and the universities of Illinois and Mississippi. Volunteer work is part of the curriculum and they will be completing a total of 7,000 hours at places such as the Aghios Dimitrios Physical Rehabilitation Center for Children, the Arsis center and hostel for homeless minors, the Smile of the Child charity, various churches, and the Friends of People with Disabilities, among others.
Theoretically, the volunteers could also work on large group campaigns but ACT decided to individualize the program by splitting the students into small groups so they could gain a more in-depth knowledge of what they are doing and the society they have become a part of.
The cost of managing the program is high, but so are the rewards.
“The program started gradually 15 years ago,” Dr Panos Vlachos, the president of ACT, told Kathimerini. “In 1998 we had just seven students from the US, but since 2007, when we started to forge partnerships with major universities over there, we have seen a huge increase. Volunteerism is always part of the students’ academic commitments. In the beginning, though, this culture was lacking in Thessaloniki. I remember sending students to food lines and the ladies working there would tell them to sit down and offer to make them coffee. It was bit awkward at first but in the past four years or so we have developed excellent cooperations with all the agencies and built trust.”
Now, the city’s organizations and agencies look forward to the arrival of a new batch of volunteers from the US every year.
“It was one of my most valuable experiences in Greece,” said Ryan, who volunteered with the Friends of People with Disabilities. “I learned a lot about the community and its needs and I felt it was the only time that I felt entirely assimilated with Greek culture.”
Another young woman, who preferred not to give her name, said: “I had never done any volunteer work in my life. Now was the time. I am accustomed to being served, cooked for, not lifting a finger. Now it’s time for me to serve people in need and to prove that we are all equal.”
The school’s efforts are constant and ongoing.
“It is odd that while we were offering volunteers we had trouble placing them with organizations,” said Vlachos. “Often, because of labor laws, it was hard to justify the presence of the volunteers. Gradually, though, all the obstacles were overcome.”
Last year ACT hosted 500 American students, more than any other university in Southeastern Europe. In total, ACT has hosted over 3,000 American high school graduates, unofficial ambassadors of the US in Greece.
“These kids form lasting bonds with Greece and build precious bridges with their country,” said Vlachos. “The benefits are multiple for Thessaloniki as most of them return for holidays with their families or friends and advertise Greece everywhere they go. We have estimated that this program contributes more than 7 million euros a year to Thessaloniki’s economy.”