TOOLS FOR LIFE HEROs 2014 - Kelkheim, Germany
HERO 2014 and winner of this year's exclusive TOOLS FOR LIFE Christmas fundraising campaign is:
Father Antonios Papanikolaoum from Greece.
12.200 EUR were collected with the Christmas campaign for the benefit of Father Antonios' project "Ark of the world". The money was presented personally by Dr. Sabine Rothenberger, board member of the foundation, on February, 4. Please read her travel report here.
His nomination was submitted by the ROTHENBERGER Hellas team who have been in close contact with his initiative "Ark of the world" for years. In the following you can learn more about our HERO 2014 and his organization. We also implemented a video about his presentation at a TEDx conference in Athens this year. We are proud to support Father Antonios with our Christmas campaign and will visit him next year to meet him in person.
Father Antonios Papanikolaoum, founder of the non-profit organization "Ark of the world" (Kivotos tou Kosmou" in Greek), spent his early childhood on the island of Chios in Greece where he was born in 1971 into a poor but loving family. His great grandparents came to the island as refugees during the Greek Genocide of 1922. They had left everything behind and fled Smyrna in Asia Minor to save their lives. From a very young age his family thought him values like treating others with kindness and respect, being compassionate with the misplaced and the downtrodden and bringing brotherly love to all people. These values he passes on today to "his children” at the non-profit organization “Ark of the World” that he founded in Athens in 1998.
Father Antonios graduated from the University of Athens school of Theology. Part of his studies were missions in Brazil and Ghana, countries inflicted by extreme poverty. These experiences substantially influenced the direction his life took after his return to Greece. “Since a very young age I wanted to help others in every way I could, to give a helping hand where it was needed and I thought, going into the priesthood would help me in that pursuit a great deal, and it has” says Father Antonios about himself.
After becoming a priest he was first assigned to the Saint George church located in Kolonos. In the 90ies this run down neighborhood near the center of Athens was a haven for refugees from different countries and ethnic backgrounds, who fled their countries because of wars and famines like Iraq, Kurdistan, Armenia and many African countries. This mix of so many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds led to massive problems in this part of the city, e.g, drugs, juvenile delinquency, huge school drop out rates, youth gangs but also unemployment and substance abuse.
These were the troubles father Antonios faced in his first parish. He knew immediately he had to improve the situation, rolled up his sleeves and went to work: “I could not just sit idly by and watch without at least trying to help those children and their families. These children were mostly hanging out at the city square, didn't attend school and just loitered in the streets all day. So something had to be done”.
"Ark of the world" was founded by Father Antonios in 1998 when he was only 26 years old and had just started priesthood. He was determined to improve the living conditions of the children in his parish and approached them by showing real and true interest for them, their opinions and sorrows. Little by little the distance between him and the children became smaller, they opened up and bonded with Father Antonios. They began to trust him and talked to him about their problems. He just listened at first and treated everyone with love and respect: «I sat and listened to these children; I accepted them as they were. When someone is so desperate, as they were, what can you tell them? The time for words had passed, it was time for action. These were children whose basic needs such as food, clothing and in many cases shelter were not met, those were the first things we needed to do, the rest would come later»
Regardless of his small salary, the young Orthodox priest rented a small storefront that used to be a café. With the help of his young wife they put in weeks of hard work and turned the place into the first real home for "their" children. The “Ark of the world” was born. His first goal was to provide for the children’s basic needs, such as food and clothing and shoes, and hopefully, medical and dental care. He went hard at work asking people to help, to donate food and clothes and shoes. Pretty soon things began to look better, his wife cooked a warm meal every day for the children and they had clothes and shoes. Father Antonios' next step was to win the children over to good education for achieving a better life. He encouraged mothers to take their children to school and not to allow them to hang out all day. He even registered some of the kids to school himself: «When I started out, I had no plan… one thing led to another. The children were sick, they had no clothes, no shoes… We said that we should cook food for the children at one corner of the room and provide them with education at the other corner. It was all we had, we were to make the best use of what we had. Then the homeless came and we made beds for them. Then we built showers so that children could bathe and be clean… too many needs and too few resources»
Father Antonios began to ask people to come out to the “Ark” and donate whatever they could and the people responded from all corners of Athens they came bringing food and clothing for father Antonios’ children. Soon after that many volunteers came to support the "Ark": teachers helped the children with their homework, others taught Greek so they could learn the language well. Some came to cook meals and more and more people out of all parts of Greece sent care packages. Soon sports teams were formed and Father Antonios organized neighborhood sports tournaments in an effort to boost the children’s low self esteem and keeping them busy and off the streets.
The people embraced Father Antonios' work and responded by volunteering and donating. Very soon the number of "Ark children" rose dramatically up to 150 as more refugees poured into Athens. It became apparent that another larger home was needed. The little storefront could no longer contain the number of children and volunteers. Fortunately one of the volunteers offered to rent an entire floor of an old apartment building in the area for a whole year. So the "Ark" moved into this bigger place where classrooms were created, a much larger kitchen was built and also the first shelter for homeless mothers and their children was established. The furniture was all donated by a nearby hotel. Father Antonios now had the space to incorporate new services to further improve the children’s lives. Speech therapy, a psychologist for children and social workers services were added - all manned by volunteers that generously offered their free time and their know-how to the "Ark".
But there was also a downside to the great success of the "Ark". Local racists and gang leaders were declared enemies of the "Ark" and for a while shouting obscenities, smashing windows and throwing bricks at the "Ark" building were a daily occurrence. One time Father Antonios was even shot. But he stood tall and fought for his cause: «I do not believe in lost causes and fear tactics… I do believe in the miracle that can be achieved through love and caring for one another… children that some considered to be lost causes with no future, that grew up with us are now University students with bright futures”
The "Ark's" help for refugees was also harshly criticized by many local citizens and the authorities in the area. Until recently, they claimed that father Antonios’ efforts should be solely focused on Greek citizens in need. Even the Orthodox church shared that opinion. However, Father Antonios’ position was firm and clear: The “Ark” is open to anyone in need, irrespectively of nationality and religion. «How can a displaced person survive if you do not train him or teach him the language, do not hire him and do not in any way help him find his way? He will have to do anything in order to survive, even steal! If everyone took some initiative, did something in his/her own neighbourhood we would not be facing this problem. So, we either lock ourselves inside our homes or we come out and figure out what each one of us can do to help them stand on their own two feet”
The local authorities were initially unwilling to help the “Ark”. But when the results of Father Antonios' efforts became obvious they had to admit that juvenile delinquency amongst Greeks or refugees had dramatically dropped in the area due to Father Antonios' work. Despite the difficulties and the obstacles, father Antonios never lost his optimism and his hope; he stayed focused to his goal, always finding ways to help as many people as possible! «Our only guide is love…»
The background to the project
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TEDxAcademy - Father Antonios Papanikolaou
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