Elli Petropoulou

Elli Petropoulou: Raising a child in Spirit of Mercy Orphanage 

Translated by Elisavet Kechagia

Based on the original article in Greek by Μαίρη Παπαδογιαννάκη

Elli Petropoulou, student of the Business Administration Department of the University of Patras, Greece, after having paid tribute to every aspect of volunteerism, she decided in her early twenties to volunteer at Spirit of Mercy Orphanage in Kahawa West, one of Kenya’s most impoverished regions

Citycampus.gr has secured an extremely interesting interview with her, which aims to demonstrate the living conditions of children in Africa, Elli’s work in her attempt to improve their everyday lives,  but also the indisputable value volunteer work holds in today’s world.  

How come a 22 year old Greek woman sets off to Kenya to become a volunteer? 

Each and every one of us has a personal goal, something they wish to achieve. That for me, from a very young age, was journeying to Africa. As I was growing up, so did my knowledge of its beauty, the challenging life conditions there as well as the large scale humanitarian crisis that plagues the entire continent

I could not help but fall in love.

I wanted not only to explore Africa, but also to be of service to it. That’s how I began little by little to raise money, all the while being on the lookout for an opportunity, someone to accompany me. In the end I was successful money-wise, but no one was willing to take part in this crazy idea of mine. So I found a volunteering program at IVHQ.org, booked my tickets and set off. And that’s how you find a 22 year old girl from Greece in Kenya. 

What were your duties as a volunteer exactly? 

I volunteered for two weeks in the Spirit of Mercy orphanage. There I met 31 abandoned/orphaned children. I would go there everyday at 9AM when they were at school, to do housework. But African housework is nothing like Greek housework. When we cooked, it was usually rice, flour, cabbage, or potatoes thrown in a cauldron. There was no oven, nor vacuum cleaner, so we used a bundle of branches to sweep. All clothes were hand-washed in buckets and hung to dry in the yard. Words like washing machine, dryer, detergents were unknown. When the children came home from school, my “job” was to play with them. It truly was the best part of the day. Since we did not have any toys, we put our minds to work and made up our own games. Through games, I tried to teach them new things; to spark not only their interest, but also original thinking. I cannot even begin to describe how I felt every time they smiled and grew enthusiastic!

Would you like to share with us a typical Kenyan day? 

My own typical day was nothing like a typical Kenyan day, since making ends meet there is no easy task. I went jogging every morning around 5PM, and I would see people awake carrying stuff, men driving old cars, women cooking by the road. 

Kenyans are truly hard-working. With their economy being based on lower middle-class businesses such as grocery stores, street-food and stands with all sorts of goods, there is no middle ground; hard work is the only work there is.

Children go to school. Education is highly valued; parents do everything to pay for tuition fees, books, and uniforms since school is their one way ticket to a better future. 

In the morning, the streets are full of life and…dust. There is unbelievable traffic and you do not know where to focus your gaze from all the pedestrians, animals and cars. As soon as the sun sets, families gather round the house to spend some quality time together and the streets grow empty, making wandering around in the dark unsafe. 

Is there a specific image that has been etched on your memory?

I think that Africa, Kenya in particular, has gifted me with incredible and beautiful images. I keep each day alive in my mind like a motion picture. I cherish the intensity in the children’s eyes and their amazingly true, pure and honest gaze. I cannot possibly exclude their smiles!

If I were to pick an image though, it would be a sad one. When I visited Kibera, the largest shantytown in Africa, I took provisions with me for a few families. Upon distributing them all, a woman approached me to ask why I had not brought her children food as well considering they had not eaten anything in the last couple of days. Said children were hiding behind their mother’s skirt, borderline skeletal, with the most piercing look in their eyes. I had never seen anything of the like. There was a silence about them that spoke volumes and it tore me apart. The only thing I managed to utter was a promise to come back for them. 

Being surrounded by children brings great joy and happiness in our everyday lives. Would you say that they have taught you something?

I love children. I really do. All of them; they are so valuable, the future of our society, our only true source of happiness.  This is especially true for the children at the orphanage. Even though they were denied everything, they gave everything. They could have been tormented by their past, but still, they made my present joyful. Could you even begin to imagine a child growing alone in the streets, offering you a handful of mud saying “Look, I made you a ball so we can play”, smiling all the way? 

Let’s see…what have children taught me? What could a five year old orphan teach you that you do not already know? It can only remind you that happiness lies in the simplest of things, that what matters the most are memories, people close to our heart, and feelings. Children taught me how to be frugal, optimistic, grateful and to love unconditionally; to love with actions not words everyday for the rest of my life. 

Do you believe that volunteerism in Greece is at its rightful place, as far as recognition goes? 

Volunteerism essentially is  the manifestation of our interest in our fellow man. I believe that nowadays having a heart is not highly valued. We all tend to stress over our problems more often than not, to give ourselves over to despair, lose courage and also sight of our fellow man and the common good. That’s the reason why volunteerism fails, but this is not a first and definitely not Greek in origin.

But let’s be positive. Let’s look inside ourselves and become active citizens. Volunteer based groups and organizations flourish, and are ready to contribute no matter the call, much like the devastating summer fires this year. There are over 400.000 blood donors and the numbers speak for themselves: many people out there are interested in volunteerism, especially the young, but just don’t know how exactly to be of service. 

I really hope this interview helps in bringing our hidden altruism to light, our yearning to be of service. You can become a volunteer. We all can.

Without a shadow of doubt volunteerism means a lot to you. Would you encourage others to follow your lead?

Certainly you must have heard of the phrase “volunteerism gives back more than it takes” and if it is the first time you hear it, then hear it from me: It is the truth. Through volunteerism I discovered new skill sets that proved useful even for my professional development. I had the privilege to meet amazing people, the restless and part-of-everything kind that we all aspire to be. I took part in seminars and exhibitions, admission to which I could not possibly afford, but that was remedied by the fact that as a volunteer I had access to new knowledge and connections: my job was my admission fee. As a volunteer I learned, travelled, experienced, and had the chance to influence and be influenced by all these new personalities I encountered.  I made friends, broadened my horizons and made the world around me a little bit better, which filled me with a sort of moral satisfaction. That was my compensation. 

Now is the time to open your computer, google your favourite hobby and find a volunteer community around it. That’s how I became a volunteer: time after time and by seeking opportunities. You can be one too, even better than me and you will surely become better than today’s you!!

At this point, it is worth mentioning that Elli’s highly successful campaign continues to gain traction thanks to the large sensitized audience. which has contributed in all these children having potable water to drink today with its real support! 

For all those who are interested, you can contact Elli Petropoulou or follow her personal profile on Facebook, as well as on Instagram from where the displayed photos where taken. 

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