GUEST POST: Project Maya in Greece by Angela Metcalfe

Angela Metcalfe blogs about her recent trip to Greece on Project Maya to volunteer on the ACRE social action project for struggling Greek families:

"They say that the eyes are the window to the soul. As I sit opposite Spyros in a smoke filled room, sharing a meal at the day centre he attends each week, he gives little away of the despair he has been through but you can see it. 67 years old, he lost his small boat building business 10 years ago and has since been on drugs, was an alcoholic, suffered acute neuropathy and, by virtue of these, became homeless. He is a highly educated man, interested in psychology, politics and philosophy and speaks perfect English.

The day centre looks after thousands of Spyros’, also families, pregnant women, single parents, unaccompanied immigrant minors, married couples, the elderly, the mentally ill, the hapless and the hopeless. It is run by a charity called Praxis who are just wonderful, wonderful people. They run on very limited funding and are strongly supported by the local people and government.

Athens itself was a huge eye-opener. I had a good idea of the economic situation in Greece but until I actually saw it for myself, I could not have described how bad it is. The day centre was located in an area of Athens where perhaps only one in ten shops was open, the majority of them filthy, poster covered and abandoned. The odd one opens occasionally as more of a place of congregation, hiding the drug dealers supplying the fix to men and women, young and old, shooting up with Heroin in full public view. Outside the day centre when we return for the meal, there are two young men, in their early 20s, sifting through the rubbish and rubble that we had put out for the bin men earlier in the day from our work and renovations. It’s that desperate, even a few used plastic water bottles have a sell-on value of cents.

The first centre where we worked we renovated the dentist’s room. The charity organizes free dental care as it does doctors, social workers, legal aid, a mental health team, drug and alcohol addiction support and so on; the majority of dentists and doctors giving freely of their time. The floor in the building had become so rotten that the dentist’s chair would move. So the floor was repaired and we decorated, we bought new furniture which we assembled and as we left they were fitting new dental equipment that had been bought at cost from the manufacturer. We also renovated the staff kitchen area which had been a dingy, badly lit back room cupboard with one small window, hardly any ventilation and no where to sit for a breather. We left it a much more pleasant place where the over-worked volunteers could have a break.

The day centre was a far larger project where we spruced up 8 rooms and all the corridors with a lick of paint and a whole lorry load of new chairs and tables, shelves and cupboards. We helped put together bags of winter clothes and shoes to give to those in need. They have a library service too with over 5000 books for people to come in and read, so they can learn and better themselves, help with job applications by learning about new skills, be helped to read and write better. If you needed one, you could get a replacement pushchair for your child, and at the same time come and use the day room where you meet other parents and babies and toddlers. Each week, Spyros has an allocated time slot of two hours where he comes and showers, picks up his medication and washes and dries his clothes: he’s proud and doesn’t want to look bad.

So did we make a difference? Of course we did. But it was a very very small contribution to a desperate situation. Did we learn anything? Certainly: that even though some of the people that Praxis helps are absolutely at rock bottom, have nothing, literally nothing, the charity does their best to restore their souls.

The Greeks are a proud nation. They want to work, they want to pay their taxes, they want to feel they are good people contributing to a global society. Project Maja can’t wave a magic wand - Praxis are doing their best to achieve that, and doing it wonderfully – but we can through personal experience try to understand what has gone wrong, and how as a global community we can through good governance try to not let a desperate situation, become utterly desolate.

I take away lasting memories of Athens. Images of the rubble searchers; images of the young mum being given a bag of clothes for her young child; images of the smiling faces of the volunteers at Praxis so grateful for our small contribution to their cause. But most of all the image of Spyros’ soulful face, leathered from the past few desperate years but still, inside with a smile and a sense of pride.

Maja is a dedicated social action programme where we bring together leading politicians, civic leaders and activists from across the world to participate in community led voluntary projects."

Project Maja was founded by the Rt Hon Baroness Warsi and the Rt Hon William Hague in 2009, and has been managed by ACRE since 2012.