Kivotos was founded by Father Antonios in 1998 when he was only 26 years old and had just entered priesthood. With his belief that if he tried he could make a difference to improve the conditions in which these children lived and armed with his love for sports, especially basketball it was easy to approach the children hanging out on the square at the basketball court, as they were, and play a game with them. Gradually, the distance between him and the children diminished, they came really closer and bonds were formed between them. The children began to trust him and opened up talking to him about their problems, about racism and non acceptance about their parent’s poverty, the problems they faced every day, and the difficulties of finding themselves in a foreign land, having left everything behind, practically living in the streets all day long. Father just listened at first, he listened without passing judgement, without any biases for the color of their skin or their faith, as these were children of color and mostly Muslim. He treated everyone with the love and respect they deserved equally and without any exceptions. As time went by, the amount of trust and understanding between them was so tight they became a close knit family.
«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»
The young Orthodox priest with his meager, entry level salary, rented a small storefront that used to be a café and with the help of his young wife and weeks of hard work they turned the place into the first real home for those children, and 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 as most of the children’s teeth were black due to malnutrition. 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 and the children had something to eat every day now and they had clothes and shoes. When that was achieved it was time to talk about school he talked to the children about the value of a good education, he encouraged the mothers to take their children to school, not to allow them to hang out in the street all day, some he even registered to school himself as his work began to be known, area schools allowed him to register “his children” to school himself. He told the kids that getting a good education was their ticket out of poverty, that it was the only way they could have a future!
«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 and soon the volunteers started to come offering their services, lending a hand in whichever way they were needed, teachers helped the children with their homework, others taught Greek so the children could learn the language well and do well in school, pretty soon others came to cook the children’s meals and it was so wonderful, and finally people from all 4 corners od Greece followed suit sending the kids care packages..it was all so heart-warming, so hopeful, people just loved the Ark .
Father Antonios became ”the saint of the poor”, the displaced, the forgotten the refugees, he became their defender, their voice. Soon sports teams were formed and father Antonios organized neighborhood tournaments in an effort to boost the children’s low self esteem through sports like football and basketball, and they were good, too, winning tournaments and collecting sports trophies that brought the children joy and kept them busy and off the streets thusly curtailing any delinquent activity and keeping them in school.
The people embraced his work and responded by helping out and donating what they could, the number of the first 15-20 children rose dramatically as refugees began pouring into Athens, pretty soon it became apparent that another, larger home was needed to sustain all the work being done the little storefront could no longer contain the 150 children and about 60 volunteers. Something had to be done. And like a “deus ex machina” one of the volunteers made a wonderful offer by renting the entire fourth floor in a walk up old apartment building in the area and promised to pay rent for a whole year so the Ark moved into this bigger place where classrooms were created, a much larger kitchen was built and the first shelter for the homeless mothers with their children was created. The furniture were all donated by a nearby hotel that was renovating so things began to look better and the work continued. Father now had the space required to incorporate new services to further improve the children’s lives. Speech therapy, a child psychologist and social workers services were added all manned by volunteers that generously offered their free time and their know-how to further improve the children’s lives.
But soon, in this new home, opposition began to show its ugly head in the form of racist attacks against father from locals that accused him for “caring for the Muslims” “the foreigners” “the lost causes”. Others were annoyed too, gang leaders whose “membership” dropped as children that sold drugs for them would come to the “Ark” to get away from them and make a new start escaping a life of drug abuse, trafficking and other criminal acts.
He was shot in one occasion and barely escaped with his life and it became a common occurrence for a while to break the windows of the “Ark” by throwing bricks from neighboring buildings breaking the windows and shouting obscenities to Father and the volunteers as they would enter the building. Not that any of this could ever stop him…they tried but they couldn’t stop him. He does admit though that there were times that he feared not for his own life so much as for the lives of the children and the volunteers that supported his work.
«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”
Providing services for the refugees was a major point of contention for many of the local citizens as well as the authorities in the area. Until recently, many claimed that father Antonio’s efforts should be solely focused on Greek citizens in need and not refugees, even the higher hierarchy of the Orthodox church shared that opinion and were opposed as father Antonios challenged the status quo of the official church that did nothing to help the refugees. However, father Antonios’ position was firm and clear. Kivotos (the “Ark”) would welcome all those in need, irrespectively of nationality and religion. Father Antonios, through the years, has made huge efforts to convince the community that supporting and helping out those in need further helps to improve safety and security for all because as the children were abandoning the streets and their previous delinquent habits and started to attend school things improved and the streets were clear, on the contrary, a life of poverty, degradation and despair marginalizes a population and ultimately leads to criminal behaviour.
«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 Kivotos (Greek for “Ark”) and only stood by and criticised but later on, when the results of Father Antonios efforts became obvious they had to admit that juvenile delinquency among the youth, Greek or refugee had dramatically dropped in the area due to father Antonios and his work. An opinion shared by the teachers at the local schools that had also noticed the significant reduction of delinquent children due to the “Ark” and father’s 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!
«Love will always find the way…»
"Ark of the World" is a Non-Profit Organization for the caring mostly for homeless mothers and children, living in conditions of neglect and abandonment, without medical care, mostly coming from single parent families, and some children even without parents. The "Ark of the World" was founded in 1998 by Father Antonios Papanikolaou, armed with nothing but his love for children and his desire to create a warm nest of affection and care for these "other" children of Athens, children who had been faced with day after day abandonment, indifference, racism and social exclusion.
In the course of 18 years of operation we have taken actions and introduced innovative measures to alleviate the people we care for.
Allow me to briefly present our diverse projects and actions, as follows:
1) Soup kitchen and various activities in Athens.
With the Love of Christ as our sole ally and with just meager means at our disposal, we give out meals to 500 children per day; we also tend to their needs for clothing, footwear, medical care, psychological support, education and vocational training, while at the same time we monitor and support their families.
We also run a social grocery store that offers some relief to another 150 families not involved in our daily schedule.
2) "A Roof over their head" mother & child project
One of Father Antonios’ aims is to avoid institutionalization of the mothers and children, but try and find a way to get their life back. To this end, homeless and destitute mothers receive monthly allowances to pay rent and keep a roof over their head.
The Ark is giving monthly allowances to approximately 100 mothers and single parent poor families in order to keep their homes and pay utility bills; at the same time, scholarships are given to thme to learn a trade and we put in our efforts for the mother to find a job, so that she may stand on her own feet, taking control of her life and assume the responsibility of her children.
3) Our professional training workshops
Given that the people we look after usually have low levels of education and skills, we try to train them in different areas and skills, such as cooking, sewing, childcare and care for the elderly, hairdressing, crafts and handicrafts etc. The purpose of this is to enable our trainees to find work on their own or with our assistance and to make a living according to their skills rather than become beggars.
4) Our Youth Shelters
The Ark of the World runs four shelters for children in Athens and Piraeus, where an important part of our activities is being carried out. We take in children of all ages, from early childhood up to adulthood. The Ark of the World is their daily supporter, providing them with everything necessary for their healthy development and safety. Many of these children have been abandoned and/ or neglected or removed from their family environment by order of juvenile courts due to abuse, exploitation or severe neglect. The children are enrolled in educational programs and daily activities; they are taken from the shelter to their schools, to doctor’s appointments and to their individual activities (tutorials, speech and/ or occupational therapy, theatrical performances, excursions, etc).
In total we provide accommodation for 150 children in our shelters.
5) The Center for Child Care and Protection in Pogoniani Epirus
The Ark of the World recently expanded its activity to the village Pogoniani in the Epirus Region, barely 800 meters from the Greek-Albanian border, a region with increased needs for social structures and economic boost. We strived to create a structure to accommodate and embrace children, youths and families who need support and protection and/ or professional training. This is also a project of national importance since the above structure was created to a most sensitive part of the Greek-Albanian border, a desolate region that we hope to bring back to life.
More specifically, in December 2013 the Ark of the World established a Child Protection Center in the village of Pogoniani, right next to the Greek-Albanian border, where fifty-six youngsters aged between six and seventeen years have already found a warm heaven of loving care. In January 2014, the Elementary School of Pogoniani reopened after many years and children's voices were once more heard in this former village of just 50 aged residents.
You realize of course that we see ourselves as soldiers. In a difficult time for our country, we are investing in a border region to support it.
Pogoniani however is a very small village and lies 67 km from Ioannina where most of our children's activities take place.
In our new premises in Pogoniani we have also established a Farm School with agricultural production and animal husbandry orientation, where young students from 15 years of age get to learn the basics in agriculture, stock-breeding, beekeeping, cheese-making etc. This way they are given the tools that will enable them to stay in the region, to work and to have a chance at a healthy start in life. The facility in Pogoniani has already provided many young people with a full vocational training in order to engage in the primary sector and ensure a dignified life in a region that has so much to offer but whose resources unfortunately remain untapped so far. We are currently in the process of purchasing the dairy and apiary equipment as well as the necessary livestock.
The purchase of this equipment is essential for us, because we are preparing to launch pure organic products (jams, trahana, dairy products, honey, handicrafts etc.) from our production in order to boost our revenues and so make our facility sustainable and independent.
6) The Child Care and Protection Village in Chios.
Both Father Antonios and his wife originate from the island of Chios and "bear" the island in their heart; so, when given the chance to help their hometown, they wouldn’t pass up this opportunity and thus the Child Care and Protection Village in Chios was created. It was established in September 2014 in Epos in Chios, 15 minutes away from the village of Vrontados. The existing facilities were renovated and today 30 children are accommodated there. The Village serves the entire Aegean Region, from Lemnos to Rhodes.
Much like our facility in Pogoniani, the Chios premises are also farm-oriented. We have available land and run a small farm with a vegetable garden, a flower garden, an olive grove and farm animals. Our action embraces children, adolescents and the families of those in need of support, protection and / or vocational training.
7) Vacations and excursions for our children
Every summer we strive to find vacation destinations for our children since, as you may guess, they cannot afford to make holidays by their own means.
So we are trying to visit the most beautiful places of our country, although this is not always possible.
8) The program for semi-independent living for young adults.
This project arose from the need of the children when they become 18 years of age and legally no longer qualify as children, but as young adults; without a family, income and support, their choices are truly limited. The Ark backs our children up as they become adults until they manage to stand on their own feet. We provide them with living quarters and cover their expenses; allowances are given to young people as a support during their studies and throughout their military service. After high school, they attend higher education establishments or enroll in apprenticeship programs to learn the trade in real working conditions and be trained by real professionals (plumbers, electricians, and car mechanics).
9) The reception center that provides meals, relief and psychological support to homeless people and other vulnerable groups.
The Center provides meals to our homeless, lonely and needy fellow human beings but also the opportunity to look after themselves and tend to their personal hygiene. Located in central Athens, it is also staffed with specialist psychologists and social workers; training workshops and handicrafts’ classes are also conducted, in which the trainees themselves create artifacts to be sold, thus creating a small income for them. There’s also the possibility to continue doing this as a profession, should they wish to and be able to.
We give our best to offer our children everything we can, not holding anything from them. We give them everything we have. We don’t want our children to feel like “children of an inferior god". We feel that we take the state’s role cause the state offers nothing to us in many cases in the field of child welfare and we really need to be our angel and help and support us in this difficult daily struggle for our children.
We need your help and your feelings charitable and we thank you in advance for your actions.
With your help we can do more.
Thank you so much in advance
EUROBANK : 0026 0178 870100 872073 PIREUS BANK: 5023 – 032595 - 870
IBAN : GR3702601780000870100872073
SWIFT / BIC: ERBKGRAA
EUROBANK : 0026 0178 870100 872073
PIREUS BANK: 5023 – 032595 - 870