Following the heartwarming and inspired talks by Nobel Peace Laureate, Adolfo Perez Esquivel of Argentina and the workshop leaders of the 2018 PeaceJam Greece Conference, the contagious enthusiasm my 20 students and I experienced followed us through the year. The words “one person can make a change” became a part of our daily conversations in English class.
My students brainstormed for ideas on a project that could fulfil a community need. The youth felt they spent all their time reading school books and not enough time reading books that could let them experience the world. The prolonged economic crisis our country was facing left little pocket money for a privilege such as books. Students also wanted to be able to read literature in the languages they were learning. Our eureka moment came when we decided to start a Lending Library in our municipality.
We reached out to a board member of our local athletic club, who was quite enthusiastic about the idea and he brought the matter to the attention of the local municipality. From there, one supporter led to the next and by the end of the school year, our humble request for a one room lending library was becoming a reality. It would be housed in the corner of the athletic center, a meeting point for adults and youth in the area. It was a start.
By mid-July however, our community was changed forever. Our region was hit by the most destructive fire to ever pass through the areas of Mati, Rafina, Neos Voutzas and neighbouring towns, burning hundreds of homes, trapping people in the sea to save themselves, leaving people homeless overnight, and killing nearly 100. In the aftermath, we discovered, the fire also had burned our athletic center. As a deep mourning fell upon our community, we experienced the largest outpour of support from local citizens. Some cleared the roads from debris, others provided first aide, food and clothing or temporary shelter. One generous businessman from northern Greece, who watched our community athletic center burn down during the live TV coverage of the fire reached out and made a generous donation to rebuild it. Our hopes for continuing the library project now had greater significance: The youth in the area, many of whom are still living in temporary housing containers, could benefit tremendously from having access to a lending library, amidst a time of healing and recovery in the area.
The athletic center and library corner was gradually built. The first donation of 500 books arrived in October 2018 from the Women’s International Club of Greece (WIC). They donated to us the family collection of the late Marie Blanche Sarikas, a founding member of WIC Greece, who recently had passed away at the age of 101. Books came in all genres in English, Greek, French and German. Since then, donations of books continue to arrive. Volunteers from our community as well as students from the local junior high school diligently and carefully dusted and documented each book before displaying them on the new shelves of our Library Corner at the newly built Athletic Club.
By January of the new year, enthusiasm and support for the library continued to grow. Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies that hosts Harvard’s digital library in Greece, would mentor our next steps to professionally organize our library process. And our crowning moment came, when a local philanthropist who heard of our efforts offered to fund the construction of a state –of-the- art library in the center of Neos Voutzas, bringing our proposal to full fruition and beyond our expectations!
We hosted a symbolic “ribbon cutting” on April 14, 2019 and key members of the community spoke about their involvement in moving the project forward, and the power of healing a community when we all come together for the common good. Among these speakers was the PeaceJam Neos Voutzas Teacher and students, Peace Jam Greece Regional Director, the grandson of the late Marie Blanche whom the library is named after, the Mayor, a television journalist and the Director of Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Greece.
As I publically thanked the PeaceJam students for their hard work and inspiration and each supporter for their generous donation, I could not help but recall my own childhood story as a young girl in America, when my illiterate immigrant mother would walk hand in hand with my two sisters and I, for nearly a half an hour, so that we could reach the public library and use our library card to access books, books that could helps us to develop a love of reading and learning. Yet, decades later, despite the exciting world of technology that our youth are immersed in, it was books that my students wanted to access, books that could arouse their imagination, travel them to faraway places and inspire their dreams for the future from great minds.
As we look forward to the date when we can share the “blue ribbon ceremony” of the Marie Blanche State-of-the-Art Library, my students and I realize that we have a lot of work to do, to not only build the library but to keep building community.
Our nomination to the Billion Acts of Peace Campaign is a humble reminder how the potential of one idea can come to life through the power of giving and collaborating for the greater good. Yes, one person can make a difference, but together we can transform our communities.
A big heartfelt thank you to Peacejam Greece and Peacejam Foundation for inspiring us to dare to dream so big!