Meet Harris Gazi, co-founder of Πρώτα το Παιδί – Children First, an organization that does exactly what it says, puts children first. The organization was founded in December of 2019 after Harris and her two friends noticed how many more families were living below the poverty line in their community due to Greece’s financial crisis. Nutrition, education, and medical care are the organization’s central focus. With Harris’s 20-year experience in communications and fundraising, such an organization was a no-brainer. In only two years, Πρώτα το Παιδί – Children First, has already helped so many children and their families when it comes to their health and skill development. Here is what Harris had to say to Aphrodite Kotrotsios, publisher of the Hellenic News of America about why she started the organization and why it is important to her.
1. In December 2019, you founded Πρώτα το Παιδί – Children First. How did the organization come about?
The organization’s cofounders -Anestis Bozoglanian, Amalia Zovoili, and I- all worked in the nonprofit sector for many years, so we were not strangers to stories of human suffering. We often found ourselves donating, or gathering toys or food for this or that initiative during our free time. We knew that there were many needs within our local communities that were not being met, so, we began researching those needs. We mapped out every state, municipal, community, and solidarity structure, group, and initiative in Attica. We held dozens of meetings with those providing food, medicine, shelter, and health services in the region. And we realized that there were gaps. And there were people falling through the cracks. We decided to do something about it, and Πρώτα το Παιδί was born.
The idea behind Πρώτα το Παιδί first came about when I became a mother ten years ago. We were in the first years of the financial crisis in Greece, and the stories of families’ strife and hardship that were so common in the media then were unbearable to me as a new mom of a baby. The inequalities were -and alas are- astounding. The “Greek crisis” no longer merits headlines, but one-third of the population remains at risk of poverty. Thousands of families are still falling through the cracks every day.
2. What is the purpose of Πρώτα το Παιδί – Children First?
We believe that all children should have equal opportunities to thrive. Today, over 500.000 children 0-16 years of age live at risk of poverty or social exclusion in Greece. Our aim is to reduce the inequalities faced by these children. We help break this cycle of poverty by working directly with their families to improve their lives in three areas that are key for children’s healthy development: nutrition, education, and medical care. We hope that by ensuring that each child has three healthy meals per day, access to medical and dental care, practical skills such as English language proficiency, and by helping the parents find ways to empower their children through counseling sessions with our psychologist, the child will be a better fit to realize his or her potential.
3.What type of programs has your organization implemented to help the children?
Usually, we start our intervention with nutritional assistance, as this is the most acute need that we identify. During our interviews, we met mothers who could not afford milk for their toddlers or skipped dinner so their children could have enough food. Each child is assessed by a nutritionist so that we can create a plan and move forward with regular food deliveries to the family.
The child is also assessed by a pediatrician so we can monitor his or her development as well as catch up on any vaccinations that may have been skipped. At this stage, we usually visit the dentist too, because unfortunately dental care and hygiene is a fairly large expense for a family that may be struggling to put dinner on the table.
Finally, depending on the age of each child, we enroll them in English classes as well as an after-school sport to make sure they are improving their physical condition and socializing with other children. The educational part has been a challenge since all classes and activities have been canceled during the lockdown, but we helped our kids access remote schooling, which is mandatory, by providing them a laptop or tablet as well as internet access early enough so they didn’t miss a single class.
4.How many children/families are supported by Πρώτα το Παιδί – Children First?
We are currently assisting six children aged 1,5 to 9 and are adding three more in the next few weeks. We’re also excited about the first newborn we’ll be assisting who is “arriving” in January! We’ve been helping the mother throughout her pregnancy by covering the costs of her medical exams and ultrasounds as well as with extra food deliveries; we anticipate covering the costs of the baby’s medical care as well as that of the hundreds of diapers mom will need in the first few months…
5. How can a family in need participate?
We are currently working with the Municipality of Aigaleo, in Attica. The area’s Social Services Office brings us in touch with families who are eligible and interested in enrolling in our programs. As we grow, we will begin working with more municipalities in the Attica region, and we envision eventually branching out to launch programs in other areas of the country where there are concentrations of families living at or below the poverty line.
6. It has been a year now since you started the organization, what has the organization accomplished?
Since we began working with our first beneficiaries in July, we have supplied over 1.250 meals to our families, covering diverse nutritional needs from carrots and broccoli, to apples and bananas, to milk and cheese, to beef, chicken, fish, bread, eggs, and olive oil. We’ve provided 15 medical and dental check-ups that the families would not have been able to afford. At the same time, we’re proud that so many people have embraced our work and trusted our new organization with their donations; without the financial help of our donors, our work would not have been possible.
7. What have you learned?
Behind every statistic, there are human lives. We came across hundreds of statistics when we were researching needs in our community; for example, nearly 40% of children suffer from material deprivation in Greece. During our interviews, we came to understand what this statistic actually meant. That within our group of beneficiaries, there are families without a car, without a functioning refrigerator, without internet access. Families that cannot afford to eat meat. Mothers who skip meals so their children can eat. But above all? Behind every statistic, there is also something that each of us can do about that statistic. We love a quote by Mahatma Gandhi: “the future depends on that which we do today.” Today, each and every one of us can help these children build a brighter future.
8.What is your best memory from this year?
This has been a difficult year for everyone around the globe, but we were founded at the end of 2019 so everything we have achieved has actually occurred during 2020. I think my fondest memory was the day that the first food delivery went out to our first beneficiary family. It signified that our 50-page business plan was coming to life and helping kids living in poverty was becoming a reality.
9. The organization features a program called “Στηρίζω Ένα Παιδί” – “I Support A Child”, how many children have been funded through this program and how can someone get involved?
This program is essentially a sponsorship program for those who are interested in covering the needs of a child that we support for an entire year. We offer donors and companies the opportunity to cover either one area of support (nutrition, education, medical care) or all three areas for one child for a year. We just launched this program, and a corporate donor has stepped up to cover the nutritional needs of three children for a year. All of the information about this particular sponsorship program can be found here: https://www.protatopaidi.org/en/company-support/sponsor-a-child/. Anyone interested can also contact us directly at [email protected]
10. What are you looking to achieve in 2021?
We know 2021 is going to be a difficult year; the coronavirus crisis and the lockdowns in Greece will undoubtedly catapult thousands of families into poverty. We envision growing as an organization so that we can serve as many children as possible. We hope to steadily enroll new families in our programs, while honoring the commitment we have made to each child that we assist to continue offering our help for as long as necessary.
11. What kind of donations do you accept?
Our priority is to receive financial donations to cover the needs of each child. We have gratefully received some in-kind donations, but having the funds to meet the specific needs of each child is essential to our work. One child may have a medical condition that requires exams and medicines while another may have a need for after-school tutoring; we are committed to cover wide-ranging needs for a diverse group of children and having the financial means to do this remains our priority.
For more information about our organization or to support our work, please visit www.protatopaidi.org/en