Before losing his battle against cancer, 10-year-old Andreas Yannopoulos expressed in his journal the wish to create an organization that would bring a smile to the faces of all children who need it.
Andreas’ father, Konstantinos, set out to make his little boy’s vision a reality. In 1995, he founded The Smile Of The Child nonprofit volunteer organization that defends the rights of children and fights day in day out to secure better conditions for them.
The Smile Of The Child network now extends across Greece and aims to improve the health and well-being of Greek children 24/7, regardless of their nationality and religion.
The organization operates 14 homes in Greece that house 348 children. It also supports children and families that cannot sustain themselves. During 2014 and the first semester of 2015, the group says it supported 21,174 children and their adult family members, 80 percent of whom were unemployed or worked jobs without benefits.
The group also helps raise awareness among students, parents and teachers through a Mobile Laboratory of Information, Education and Technology called “Ulysses” through which the organization’s workers conduct seminars and instruct professionals on how to provide first aid. The group supports children with health problems and their families for free and offers creative activities to children in hospitals. It also provides children and babies with ambulances, which in 2014 and during the first half of 2015 helped 24,661 children throughout Greece.
The group also created a platform for children to express themselves. “Everyone talks about children without the children,” Konstantinos Yannopoulos, president of The Smile Of The Child told HuffPost Greece. “We had seen that in other initiatives for children it was always grown-ups who led the discussion. We wanted the pure intentions of children who want to offer to society. So we created the volunteer platform “YouSmile,” handed it over to children volunteers and told them to do whatever they wanted with it. We don't care whether people know about “YouSmile,” we care whether children know about it."
Yannopoulos says that many children who have grown up in the organization’s homes and moved on with their lives remember the houses where they grew up with fondness and keep in touch. Some of them have even formed a volunteer group offering children psychological support and guidance. Yannopoulos has many stories about “their children,” including one about two girls who grew up in one of the houses and called him to say that they got into university and wanted to let him know that if it hadn't been for The Smile Of The Child they wouldn't have had the chance. He says this made him really proud.
Yannopoulos says that violence against children has intensified in recent years as a result of the economic crisis, and it's not just adults committing violent acts against children, but also children victimizing their peers. “Children get angry, teenagers get angry because they don't see a future and this anger brings all sorts of other things to the surface,” he says. “What people don't seem to understand, and we try to communicate to them, is that these children do not only need food. It's exactly like in a war. As a girl told me in the U.S., in Greece 'you live a silent crisis.' And indeed we do. You don't see the crisis to its real degree when you just go out.”
Today, The Smile Of The Child employs 408 professionals and 2,500 active volunteers. The search and rescue team “Thanassis Makris” is made up of specialized volunteers, and uses dogs trained for search operations. The day center “House of the Child” is “a community unit providing customized clinical mental health services for therapeutic treatment and psychosocial rehabilitation of children and adolescents; victims of abuse, neglect or domestic violence; as well as children or adolescents involved in cases of bullying.” It is staffed by a team of professionals, including a psychiatrist, children's psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, a social worker, a speech therapist, an ergo-therapist and an educationist.
Yannopoulos emphasizes, however, that The Smile Of The Child doesn't want to substitute government institutions. “We complement the institutions, we believe in their function and we support them, more than the government does. Greece may not have organization, we may go through a very bad period, but there are also remarkable people without whom we wouldn't be able to make it. If we didn't have good police officers or doctors, people who care, we would be of no use.”
Despite being a private institution The Smile Of The Child partners with public entities and social groups -- and that is how it mobilizes them. The police, the fire department, Red Cross, the Greek rescue team, and other organizations, often help by informing Smile Of The Child of possible incidents.
“The police came the other day and brought us food which they gathered and brought to us at the support centers. The police do not cover every social or other issue, that is not what they do. They need someone to be able to respond to children's emergencies and be there at all times. The Smile Of The Child is there to cover cases like that, the same applies for missing children. When there is need we are all on the front line.”
Yannopoulos underlines the difference between one-off charities and infrastructure. “You have to be truly conscious, not just aware. I used to look for families to help, 20 years ago, help them spend the same kind of Christmas as me. Offered them dinner and a couple of clothes, then what? They continued living in misery. The “charity by the ounce” as I call it, is easy. It's the infrastructure you need. Pay people, pay vehicles, pay for a service which is there 24/7,” he says.
“We are not a bunch of philanthropists in The Smile Of The Child," he adds. "We don't care to appear like philanthropists as a show, we want to be, as much as possible, able to safeguard the dignity of these people and their families. If we lose our dignity we lose what is most valuable. We don't do them a favor, it's our obligation, it's society's obligation to safeguard their most basic rights.”
This story originally appeared on HuffPost Greece. It was translated into English and edited for clarity.